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The Legislature will probably pass a hands-free bill. Whether it’s going to make driving in Minnesota safer is less clear

Research shows that calls made while holding a cellphone are not, in fact, significantly safer than calls made with hands-free systems.

State Sen. David Osmek
State Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, speaking at a Monday press conference.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Minnesota legislators will make another push to require those who want to talk on the phone while driving to use hands-free devices.

Similar bills have fallen short in the recent past. But even those who once opposed such measures now say they think horrific crashes caused by distracted drivers have become too prevalent to vote no again. Gov. Tim Walz says he will sign a bill if he reaches his desk.

But to get to passage, supporters of the legislation have to either ignore or rationalize the research behind distracted driving. Research done by psychologists and others shows that calls made with hands-free systems are not, in fact, significantly safer than calls made while holding a cellphone.

“It is as distracting to have a hands-free conversation as to have a hand-held conversation,” said Ira Hyman, Jr., a professor of psychology at Western Washington University. “It’s really not about what your hands are doing. It’s about where you head is, where your mind is. When it is occupied trying to hold a conversation, you can fail to see things that pass directly in front of you.”

Did you see the unicycling clown?

Hyman is responsible for a test of what is termed “inattention blindness” that attracted national media attention, better known as the “Did You See the Unicycling Clown” study. Hyman and his students tested the difference between students who were either talking on cellphones or not. They also tested people listening to music. During the study, all the participants were intersected by a man in a clown suit riding a unicycle.

Only 8 percent of those talking on a cellphone said they saw the clown, while 60 percent of those walking with a friend did. When people were prompted — did they see a clown? — 71 percent of those walking with friends said they did but just 25 percent of the the cellphone users did.

The clown study was done with students walking on campus. But related research, especially work led by University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer, has pierced many of the beliefs about cellphone use in cars. It was his work that demonstrated that having cellphone conversations while driving — even with hands-free devices — is dangerous.

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“Don’t assume that if your eyes are on the road and your hands are on the wheel that you are unimpaired. If you don’t pay attention then you are a potential hazard on the roadway,” he said in a university announcement of his research. He has extended that research to use of voice-activated dashboard entertainment systems that are becoming more common in cars.

“The real concern in terms of safety,” he told the Salt Lake City Tribune, “is that the average driver is going to assume, ‘Hey, it must be safe. Why would the car company put it in the car unless it was proven to be safe?’ It clearly isn’t.”

The National Transportation Safety Board makes no distinction between hands-free and hand-held calls, and in 2011 urged states to ban all calls by drivers of vehicles in traffic.

The same research that raises concerns with all calls also dismisses the rationale that talking to someone by cellphone is the same as talking to a passenger in the car.

“That’s not true,” Hyman said. “The person sitting next to you doesn’t disrupt as much as a cellphone conversation. It’s dramatically less. There’s an advantage to having someone else sitting next to you in a car because that person is looking forward and will help you be aware of your surroundings in the world and they will stop the conversation when the driving gets extremely difficult.”

Hyman recalls the first time he tried to tell legislators about his research. He was at the Washington state Capitol when that legislature was first considering a hands-free requirement. They didn’t believe the findings.

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“I respect many of these legislators for trying to do something, for trying to take a step forward,” he said. “The trick is that, because of these kind of laws and because of the marketing, people think they are perfectly safe if their phone is connected through the Bluetooth into their car speaker system. But it is still disruptive if it’s a hands-free conversation.

“People aren’t getting the message,” Hyman said. “It’s not like it’s a complex message: Divided attention disrupts performance. It’s relatively straightforward.”

A ‘no brainer’ issue?

An example of that disconnect came this week from advocates of bills to require hands-free calling and to stiffen penalties against texting, using a web browser, or emailing while driving, all of which are already illegal.

“Most people can talk and drive at the same time,” said Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, who is sponsoring the penalty bill, Senate File 75. “You could say that we shouldn’t allow talking in cars, period, because the person next to you could cause a distraction. But there is a line that we can’t quite get past.”

The research and national safety advocacy leaves supporters of legislation with a choice. They can try the politically untenable task of banning all but emergency calls by drivers, or they can pass what they can and hope that it doesn’t encourage more distracted driving. 

“My view of the world, when it comes to cellphone use while driving an automobile: I think it has come to be a universal danger to us on the highways,” said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, who is the main sponsor of the hands-free bill in the Senate, Senate File 91. “I can’t think of any other aspect of distracted driving that is as universally abused as having a cellphone in your hand and driving an automobile.”

The state Office of Traffic Safety estimates that one in five crashes from 2013 to 2017 were connected to distracted or inattentive driving, leading to 53 deaths and 216 serious injuries per year on average. Those numbers could be low, since it is often difficult for law enforcement to assign cause.

Vijay Dixit, whose daughter Shreya was killed by a distracted driver in 2007 and has started a foundation in her memory, called the issue a “no brainer.”

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“I don’t think there is anyone, anyone in this audience, who would like to stand like this in four or five years and talk about their loved one who was lost to a distracted driver,” Dixit said.

Minnesota State Patrol Chief Matt Langer said one benefit of a hands-free requirement is that it will help enforcement. Under current law, a driver observed by a trooper with a phone in their hand can claim they weren’t texting but were dialing a number or using a GPS system for directions. Under the bills introduced this month, anyone seen with a phone in their hands could be cited.

Langer also said that current law appears to allow voice-activated texting; that would not change under the proposals. Paul Aasen, president of the Minnesota Safety Council, said, “No one has ever claimed that hands free is distraction free.” He also said that talking to passengers was akin to talking to someone via cellphone, “and I think banning passengers in cars would probably be a pretty tall order.”

But he cites stats from other states, mostly recently Georgia, that saw a reduction in traffic crashes after passing a hands-free requirement. “It is not an absolute solution, but it is an incremental solution and it is a step forward and it appears to be working,” Aasen said.

‘The art of the possible’

When asked, Newman said winning a hands-free requirement has proven hard enough, without venturing into more restrictions. “At this point and at this stage, as legislators sometimes we have to try and make a decision of can we get the bill through, can we get it passed,” he said. “Because there’s a whole bunch of us, there’s 201 different opinions on this issue. We’re taking the best path that we can and we feel we will be successful.”

After a Monday press conference unveiling the bills, House Transportation Committee Chair Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said he is aware of the research on distractions and knows that hands-free calls are dangerous as well. “But politics is the art of the possible,” Hornstein said. “I hate to say that because I’m a community organizer and I want to be aspirational. But this is already going to be a heavy lift.”  When the Senate bill reached the House in 2018, it failed on a party-line vote.

“I think this is an important incremental step,” Hornstein said of his current bill, House File 50.

Osmek agreed. “Does this solve every problem of distracted driving? No,” he said. “Would I rather go after the person who is digging for the last Cheeto at the bottom of the bag and injuring someone? Or yelling at the kids in the back seat and hitting someone? Yes, I would. But I can’t get that done. You have to get done what you can get done. And this is very bipartisan in nature and not a Republican vs. Democrat kind of solution.”

Earlier Monday, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, who was speaker last year when a hands-free bill failed in the House, said he thinks the bills will pass this year. The other caucus leaders agreed, though Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said it could unravel if the penalties are too high.

“I hope to be able to vote for a bill; I’m not going to vote for a bill that makes talking on your phone a felony and take away people’s rights to vote and all the other things that come along with having a felony on your record,” said Bakk. Hornstein said he will not support a bill that makes violations a felony.