Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


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

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

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.

“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.

“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.”

“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.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/16/2019 - 11:12 am.

    If they are going to pass a law, make it one that will address the problem. Block all cell phone usage in the car or when it’s moving. Hands free isn’t going to stop the crashes. Distracted driving is more then phone calls, it’s texting, video watching, changing radio stations, etc etc.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/16/2019 - 03:19 pm.

      It helps if you read the article, then comment, instead of just reading the headline and commenting. Your last three sentences are covered directly in the article.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/17/2019 - 11:11 am.

        I actually did read the article. I was simply restating things in my own opinion. There are many things that can distract you while driving. Mythbusters had an episode on this very subject and showed that for most people, talking on the phone while driving is very distracting. Hands free may prevent some accidents, we can’t predict the future. But it is not the best solution by a long shot. Simply looking down at your car radio to hit a preset station button is long enough to cause an accident even at 30 mph

    • Submitted by Mark Kulda on 01/16/2019 - 11:24 pm.

      In every state that has passed a hands free law (except Illinois) the number of fatalities has dropped. You can try to claim that hands free is no safer but I don’t think its true. Professors Strayer’s research is very theoretical based on beliefs, rather than real world data. The fact is that states that have enacted hands free laws have seen fewer deaths. The most important part of the bill is to improve on the current texting while driving ban. Talking on the phone is one small problem. The much bigger problem is people who text or livestream or surf the web while driving and don’t even look at the road. That is very, very dangerous and this proposal will improve our current texting ban by making it easier to enforce. That alone is worth passage.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/17/2019 - 11:14 am.

        Any citations? Did they break down the data to prove it was a hands free law that caused fewer fatalities or was it other factors and just a coincidence.? It’s a very hard stat to prove as there are so many factors involved on car crashes even from year to year.

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 01/16/2019 - 11:48 am.

    Surely, texting must be the worst.

  3. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 01/16/2019 - 12:09 pm.

    I look forward to next year when we introduce full-on “cell phone while driving” ban

  4. Submitted by Ken Ries on 01/16/2019 - 03:14 pm.

    I won’t argue whether talking on a cell phone hands free or not is more distracting once you are on a call. However, I would argue that the act of picking up your phone and looking for a contact, firing up Spotify and searching for a song, or opening navigation and entering a destination is FAR more distracting than asking your voice system to do it for you. You simply cannot see anything with your eyes on your phone. I would also argue that it would be much easier for law enforcement to catch violators if it was as simple as “if there is a phone in your hand, it is illegal” This law makes a lot of sense to me.

  5. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 01/16/2019 - 03:20 pm.

    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.”

    So, did he actually do a study to establish this, or is he making this statement off of untested assumptions?

    Corollary: How about parents driving with a car full of kids. Are THEY going to “stop the conversation when the driving gets extremely difficult.”?

  6. Submitted by Tim Walker on 01/16/2019 - 04:14 pm.

    Sen. Osmek says: “And this is very bipartisan in nature and not a Republican vs. Democrat kind of solution.”

    Yet the 2018 vote defeating a similar bill in the House was on a party-line vote.

    So, it appears to be a partisan issue, unlike what Osmek thinks.

    Although for the life of me, I can’t see why. Nor can I figure out which party is against it and which is for it.

    The only possible reason I can think of is that Dems may be against it if the law would increase the leeway for cops to make a traffic stop, which raises profiling questions.

  7. Submitted by Mike Lhotka on 01/16/2019 - 04:26 pm.

    Will passengers not be allowed if cell phone use is blocked in a moving car? Hands free should help cut down on texting.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/17/2019 - 08:15 am.

    I have a cell phone so primitive and dumb that it is basically useless except for making phone calls. Can you imagine? I’m costing Apple and Samsung and other manufacturers (and their shareholders) money just by sitting here with an obsolete electronic device!

    Actually, I don’t see an easy solution. The genie is already out of the bottle.

    I’m inclined toward Bob Barnes’ remedies, and the research is convincing about the similarity of risk for hands-on and hands-free phone use while driving, but even if we leave out very substantial political considerations, the technology involved is daunting. How to block phone calls to moving vehicles while allowing them to stationary vehicles, or how to block phone calls to vehicles of all types while allowing them to phones that are not actually IN vehicles? I’m not an electrical engineer, and I assume that a fix could probably be devised, but at what cost? Phones like the ones my son and daughter-in-law use multiple times a day are already expensive, and I doubt manufacturers would be willing to add a motion-sensing call-blocking feature for free. Even if they did, will that make it impossible to make a call while someone is out walking their dog, because walking is also likely to be picked up by a motion sensor?

    I used to make a point of not answering my cell while I was driving – a point made easier by the fact that it’s in my pocket, and difficult to access. Many people, however, keep their phones on brackets attached to their vehicle in some fashion, and with steering wheel-mounted controls, access is not much of an issue. My new vehicle is Bluetooth-equipped, so I can now receive (and could, if I wanted to, make…) phone calls without getting even my primitive phone out of my pocket. I don’t personally see that as a plus, but the company that made my car obviously is responding to what they see as consumer demand.

    Since banning cell phone use in a vehicle altogether seems unlikely, insisting on hands-free may not be a real solution to the dangers involved, but it also may be easier to enforce just from a visual standpoint, and it may not be any worse than what we have now – except that, for drivers with older vehicles and/or older phones, the cost of making hands-free use available in their vehicle may simply be an incentive to ignore any laws requiring it, taking one’s chances of not being caught. That gets us back to square one…

  9. Submitted by Greg Fynboh on 01/22/2019 - 09:42 pm.

    This seems like a waste of time to debate. We are just as distracted no matter how we talk to someone who is not in the car’s passenger seat. I think the ship has sailed on containing phone conversations while driving and any kind of enforcement would be arbitrary unless we are willing to make it impossible to use a phone while driving. Education, again, seems like the immediate solution. Just like playing ball — ain’t nothing safe!

Leave a Reply