Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

Surprise! New driving research shows “hands-free” isn’t safe

Posted by on June 13th, 2013 at 10:31 am

Cover of Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile,
a new report from AAA.

Yesterday the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety dropped a bomb into the national debate about distracted driving. They conducted research and developed a report that shows “significant levels of cognitive distraction” by people who drive while performing various hands-free tasks. The report comes amid a growing trend in the auto-industry to turn cars into smartphones. In fact, on the same day this report came out, Apple made a big announcement about their new operating system, iOS in the Car, which promises to allow users to, “easily and safely make phone calls, access your music, send and receive messages, get directions and more.”

Part of this push is an attempt by automakers to find a way to rekindle the love affair between young people and cars that has built the foundation of their business for decades. Unfortunately, their sales goals are at odds with the health and welfare of millions of Americans and the new in-car technology arms race they are involved in flies in the face of this new safety research by AAA. Here’s an excerpt about the research from AAA’s blog:

Much more troubling, however, is the fact that phone conversations (whether hand-held or hands-free) and voice-based interactions with in-vehicle systems create significant levels of cognitive distraction, as demonstrated by suppressed brain activity, slowed reaction times, missed visual cues, and reduced visual scanning of the driving environment (think tunnel vision). Keep in mind that these degradations were found even though drivers kept their eyes on the road and, with the exception of the hand-held phone task, their hands on the wheel.

Succinctly put: “hands-free” doesn’t mean “risk free.”

Though shipments of these [infotainment] systems are expected to skyrocket in the coming years, use of speech-to-text communications presented the highest level of cognitive distraction of all the tasks we analyzed.

Crash statistics show the importance of this research. Not only are automobile-related crashes one of the leading causes of death and injury in America, but the amount of them caused by driver distraction has reached epidemic proportions. A recent study cited in the AAA report ofund that “inattention” was a factor in 78 percent of all crashes and near crashes. The consequences of all this distracted driving are especially obvious for people who use the road while on a bicycle.

This report has garnered widespread media attention. However, the conventional wisdom is that until there are strong laws (that are actually enforced), the auto industry isn’t likely to change course. For states that care about traffic safety, there’s a clear course of action to consider. Many states have already made using a cell phone while driving illegal; but the next step is to eliminate the exception for hands-free devices. In an editorial back in 2010 we called on the Oregon Legislature to do just that. Hopefully this new research from the AAA will create the political cover needed to finally take that important legal step and put the auto industry on watch to create safer products.

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  • Granpa June 13, 2013 at 10:38 am

    Cars will continue to be mobile technology centers until a crushing lawsuit hammers the industry. There is too much to pay attention to when driving for techno-distractions to be standard equipment.

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  • mikeybikey June 13, 2013 at 10:49 am

    The car industry being reckless with people’s health and safety? Surely you jest!

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  • resopmok June 13, 2013 at 11:09 am

    I don’t drive very often, but when I do, I find that even conversations with passengers can be distracting depending on the circumstances. There is a lot of hand-eye-foot coordination, distance judgement, and behavioral guessing (of other motorists) to do simultaneously, much less trying to carry on and think critically about the topic at hand. When faced with more difficult or intense situations on the road, I often have no hesitation to tell my passengers, “just a moment, I need to concentrate on what’s going on here.” That many people drive more frequently and are more accustomed to all these tasks does not mean they necessarily take less concentration to accomplish effectively. As a professional cook, I am well aware of how actions can become habit and while this eases the stress of multi-tasking to some degree, it is taking them for granted that become the moments where I cut and burn myself. Such action is typically a minimal punishment and self-inflicted in the kitchen, but can result in serious injury or death when translated to the operation of heavy machinery in the public right of way.

    I’m not surprised by these results. Two hands versus one on the steering wheel makes little difference in ability to control a vehicle, else manual transmission vehicles would’ve been outlawed shortly after the invention of automatics. Mental cognition, emotional state, and fatigue make all the difference in being able to multi-task and prioritize in a fashion that makes driving safer. Many people feel so safe in their insulated, padded metal boxes that it becomes like a second home where they can do whatever they want. Vehicles do not exist in a vacuum, however, and the painted borders of pavement are little more than spectres of safety in a world that is actually without such boundaries

    Lastly, I’m not so sure that the impetus should be on the auto industry to regulate the behavior of those who use their products. While it is true that if technology like iOS was not installed in the vehicles there would be no temptation to use it, how distracted drivers choose to make themselves is a responsibility that lies squarely on their own shoulders. I think there is a cultural and educational view which encourages people to blame others for problems, especially on the road, rather than begin by looking for their own responsibility regarding the safety of fellow human beings. Until the majority of people are impressed by how dangerous driving actually is, I don’t expect that this problem will really begin to see a solution. Regardless of the “hands-free” law, I see people holding their phones while talking and texting while driving on a regular basis. MADD fought a long uphill battle against drunk driving over a decade ago which I believe did have a lasting impact. The social conversation we need to have on this topic is at least as important, if not more.

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    • My Magic Hat June 13, 2013 at 8:53 pm


      That was really long and hard . . . to read. I’m sure there’s a valid point in that mass of text somewhere, though. You should use sorter sentences and paragraphs.

      More people might agree with you if they can literally see your point.

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  • A.K. June 13, 2013 at 11:33 am

    My favorite thing now that I see all the time here in Portland is that people seem to think “hands free” means “turn on the speakerphone and hold the phone close to my mouth”. Makes my blood boil, really.

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    • encephalopath June 13, 2013 at 11:57 am

      Known as the Captain Kirk.

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      • A.K. June 13, 2013 at 12:25 pm

        Ha! Awesome.

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    • Oliver June 13, 2013 at 12:30 pm

      Sorry, didn’t read your post. Agree fully.

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    • Todd Boulanger June 13, 2013 at 11:59 pm

      Those [hands free with phone in hand] drivers, as a sub category of all road consumers, will from now on be called “brain free drivers”. – TB

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    • Don J June 14, 2013 at 7:42 am

      Ya. ‘Cause if it’s not up to your ear, you’re “not” distracted.

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  • Spiffy June 13, 2013 at 11:42 am

    there are studies over 7 years old that show the same thing… this isn’t new research…

    my response to hands-free-only cell phone laws was “Oh, they don’t think amputees can drive safely.”… it was never about distraction, it was about freeing up an extra hand…

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  • Oliver June 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    But, driving one handed while holding your phone out in front of you and talking on the speaker is, given the number of people I see doing it.

    These are often the same people that didn’t get the “turn indicators” option installed on their cars at the factory.

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    • Todd Boulanger June 14, 2013 at 12:00 am

      They are saving energy! 😉

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  • Joseph E June 13, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    I’m impressed that AAA sponsored this report. But really, it is the best interest of motor vehicle advocates to support attentive driving. If distracted driving crashes continue to increase, it could lead to a backlash. It’s better for AAA and the car manufacturers to stop distracted driving now, before it becomes the next drunk driving. Or is it already too late?

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  • Anne Hawley June 13, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    I’m sure there’s a range of distractability, and that different kinds of people inherently fall in different places along that spectrum. I (believe I) can listen to audiobooks while driving, and incoming road/car data will always “distract” me from what I’m listening to. I know other people who are so deeply distracted by a human voice that you can’t even speak to them and expect them to simultaneously make good driving decisions.

    People usually don’t know which one they are. People tend to evaluate themselves as “above average.” Distracted driving laws need to assume a very low common denominator, just as drunk driving laws do.

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  • BURR June 13, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    PPB will never enforce this properly, since they have bought into mobile electronic devices and are allowed to use cell phones and even have a dash mounted computer in their squad cars now. Hopefully they have more training than your average motorist on how to use these devices safely.

    Not to mention the fact that cellular phone companies have spent an awful lot of money building enough towers to ensure continuous coverage on all major highways and most local streets.

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    • Spiffy June 14, 2013 at 7:07 am

      they probably have more training, but they still drive like drunks…

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  • AndyC of Linnton June 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    I drive what seems like all the time now(hi Tri-Met!), and am pretty terrified of other drivers and road conditions to be fiddling with a phone. Jeez, even turning the radio station is distracting, and I’d love to see some more enforcement, but I won’t hold my breath on that front. Anyway, maybe this report will wake someone up.

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  • GlowBoy June 13, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    Thanks for the MADD analogy, resopmok. I think that when it comes to cellphone use we are currently where we were in the 1950s-1970s with respect to drunk driving. There’s a general recognition that it’s probably dangerous, but lots of people do it anyway for sake of convenience and lack of enforcement. Meanwhile, thousands die (and I do think distracted driving is now killing thousands per year), but it’s always someone else doing the killing.

    Unfortunately, technology-distracted driving is a lot harder to prove than drunk driving. What got people to stop drinking and driving so much wasn’t the public outrage, it was the tough criminal penalties that resulted from the public outrage. Enforcement will be harder here, especially with handsfree devices.

    But we could at least start by actually having cops start enforcing the law when it comes to obvious handheld abuse. On any given ride across the Ross Island Bridge, I will see at least half a dozen oncoming drivers talking on handhelds, and usually one or two looking at a handheld screen while they’re driving. Picking off some of these blatant abusers ought to be like shooting fish in a barrel, if the police would actually bother.

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    • Chris I June 13, 2013 at 2:31 pm

      It starts with us. When you are driving with your significant other, or a friend, or an acquaintance, call them out when they use technology while driving. A simple “oh, can I take care of that for you so you can focus on the road”, or “I’d prefer if you waited until we arrived to do that” is all that is needed. There is a lot of social pressure against DUI now, and we need the same stigma with distracted driving.

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      • A.K. June 13, 2013 at 2:50 pm

        The best thing I’ve ever done for myself is use my phone to stream podcasts to my car stereo while driving – I can’t answer my phone, because it’s plugged in and pretending to be a radio!

        Somehow we survived from ~1910 to ~1995 without needing to talking on the phone while in the car. I’m sure we could continue to be just fine without it.

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      • Pete June 13, 2013 at 6:18 pm

        This is a very good point! I’ve tried to do this in the past, as diplomatically as possible, when with colleagues as I traveled all over supporting sales people (some of the worst offenders, from what I’ve witnessed).

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      • Todd Boulanger June 14, 2013 at 12:02 am

        And when you call others on their mobile…ask if they are driving if it sounds like their head in a wind storm and then call back later.

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  • jim June 13, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    If your phone is on speaker and laying in the passenger seat, it is hands free

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    • Pete June 13, 2013 at 5:45 pm

      And if you are looking at it instead of the road you are driving distracted.

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      • are June 13, 2013 at 6:07 pm

        the point of the report is, if you are talking to someone who is not there you are distracted, whether you are holding the device in your hand or not

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  • Ted Buehler June 13, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    I did a pair of 800 mile rural freeway drives in the last month. I don’t drive all that much, and almost never talk on the phone when I do.

    I had to make a few calls on the road. I have a hands-free headset, but still had to look at the phone to dial and such.

    I’m pretty aware of driving safety and all, but it still took all the concentration I had to remember to look up every 3 seconds to check out the road as I was trying to find a phone number.

    I’m sure with more practice I could get the procedure down so I’d look up and down all the time, but it was still by far the most distracting (and potentially dangerous) activity I found myself doing in 30 hours of driving.

    So it doesn’t surprise me a bit that new research shows that doing anything on the phone is an impediment to paying attention to the road. Thanks, researchers, for getting moving on this, I hope policy follows quickly.

    Ted Buehler

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  • dwainedibbly June 13, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    I wish cell phone jammers were legal.

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  • Pete June 13, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    I can tell you first-hand that technology companies are pumping billions of dollars into in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems right now, particularly semiconductor (nVidia, Intel, Freescale, TI, etc.) and software (Wind River, Mentor Graphics, QNX, now Apple, and of course Google). My biggest concern is (and has always been) the use of ‘soft’ buttons (touchscreen) and the trend of IVI to take on tablet-like functionality, because you absolutely have to look at the screen to navigate the UI. Even bike computers have taken on this trend because soft buttons have much lower cost and more flexibility (can be localized, for instance).

    My new car has an IVI screen that I find easily distracting (I’m cautious not to use it while driving, but it lets me if I wanted to), but I do find the hands-free phone usage pretty safe and convenient. I can call someone by speaking their number or name and I can answer an incoming call all without looking at anything (or a quick glance at who’s calling in). In my experience this is no less distracting than talking to another passenger (someone else made this point too), and on long highway drives I see little danger to these conversations. Ironically one of the biggest complaints reviewers had against my car (Acura TSX) was “too many buttons”, but it’s quite easy for me to do common things without taking my eyes off the road at all, and if I remembered half of the voice commands I could do almost anything with just one button.

    Now trying to enter an address to the GPS while driving on city streets (which it actually lets me do!), on the other hand…

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    • bendite June 13, 2013 at 8:59 pm

      In these comments, people keep referring to the distractability of fiddling with something while driving, and also thinking they are ‘pretty safe’ talking hands free. The point is that the conversation itself is distracting, and you’re fooling yourself if you think you’re good at doing both. Engaging in conversation uses visual capabilities of your brain that should otherwise be used focusing on driving. My guess is that the more complex the conversation, the more distracted you are. Talking about poo-poo kitty with a 3 year old in the back seat probably uses less brain power then compared to a work related conversation. Conversations in the care are less distracting because your buddy adapts the conversation to the surroundings (pausing, pointing out things, looking at intersections,etc). I’ve talked on the phone a couple time while driving, and I definitely am aware of the ‘tunnel vision’ experience when doing it. I don’t know how other people don’t notice it.

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      • Pete June 15, 2013 at 9:54 pm

        Totally agree! But I would argue that a device that requires your undivided (visual and cognitive) attention to operate is significantly more dangerous, especially when it’s vying for your attention from another device that requires undivided attention (your car or bike).

        And are, I will let my driving and biking safety records speak for themselves. Nowhere did I argue that speaking on a ‘hands-free’ phone is not distracting while driving; note that I mention agreeing with the point that it’s the conversation itself that’s a cognitive distraction, and while biking I actively watch for drivers who are noticeably distracted in conversations with others (often children in the back seat). I’ve actually managed a conversation or two while on cruise control on long empty stretches of I-5 without killing anyone though. I’m a big boy, abide by the laws, and willing to take responsibility for my actions.

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        • are June 17, 2013 at 11:24 am

          what does it mean to “take responsibility” for your actions if you injure or kill someone. i do not value money as highly as someone else might, what i want is to be left unhurt. big boy.

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          • Pete June 17, 2013 at 12:13 pm

            What I hear is you emphasizing that I’m at risk of injuring or killing someone (you, apparently) while talking on my car’s built-in voice-activated phone while driving on a straight highway in no traffic (pretty much the only time I use it). The two realities there are that 1) you wouldn’t be biking where I feel using my hands-free phone is (relatively) safe, and 2) we’re all at risk of injuring or killing someone when we drive a car, or even ride a bike for that matter. Your comments label me as irresponsible despite you never having met or ridden with me and I take offense to that.

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    • are June 15, 2013 at 2:50 pm

      if you see little danger in using a hands-free phone while driving, maybe you should monitor your awareness more than you do. the subject of this report is in fact hands-free phones.

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  • drew June 13, 2013 at 8:42 pm

    Holding the motorist responsible for a crash unless proven otherwise is a way to deal with this. They are in the vehicle with by far the most speed and mass. The mountain biker will be held to account for running over a hiker unless proven otherwise; its just makes sense. But there is nothing logical about whats going on in our public right-of-ways today. The “I didn’t see him” defense works every time.

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  • mh June 13, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    I was astonished that AAA both did this study and released it when they saw the results. Might they actually advocate FOR us?

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    • Todd Boulanger June 14, 2013 at 12:18 am

      Perhaps the AAA have seen the future and it is the role the Canadian Auto Club or the Dutch Auto Club has been doing. (The Dutch club was founded for bicyclists and never totally forgot them as they embraced drivers in the 20th.)


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  • Todd Boulanger June 14, 2013 at 12:13 am

    Speaking of distractions, or lack of…I was in a friend’s 1962ish PU truck last week and I asked why did it smell like a Primus camp stove in the cab…he says it was from the wooden dip stick he has to use to check his fuel level…

    …so remembering back to one of my last cars (VW Beetle) and cars of my youth…perhaps its time for the transportation safety industry to get back to dash boards that only had a speed/ distance measuring gauge, fuel level indicator, and safety lights for turn signals…

    …I guess we as a roadway consumer could not deal with any more distractions (inputs) back then since it took a lot of mental and physical energy to keep a car in a lane at speed and in your unbelted seat if one was doing anything but straight as your butt slipped around on that bench seat…compared to the econobox cars of today that let you drive them like 1960s pro sports cars but with less requirements from the drivers and more traffic conflicts than a race track has…

    …almost like what fly by wire, computers and auto pilot have done to pilots in crisis situations.

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  • Dave June 14, 2013 at 10:59 am

    Let’s encourage police to use phoning drivers as occasional stress release–let ’em play with their billy clubs and do a little “behavior mod.” A few Range-Rover-driving, wealthy, white Rodney Kings might do a whole lot to straighten driver behavior out.

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    • Zaphod June 14, 2013 at 3:13 pm

      This comment is not ok on any level.
      Distracted driving is extremely frightening and dangerous for all of us, especially vulnerable road users but joking about police brutality… a bad idea.

      Focus on solutions please.

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  • bikesalot June 14, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    We need not look any farther than the events on RAAM this week, where one of the most promissing female riders was taken out of the race when a texting driver creamed the rear of her support van at 65 mph, destroying the rest of her bikes. The phone was not hands free – the driver dropped it and was reaching around for it when the collision happened.

    Google RAAM Maria Parker support van

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  • Keith June 14, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    Another issue that has gone relatively unnoticed are all the touch screens and unintuitive controls in the new cars. GPS, A/C, radio, etc. all rely on looking at a screen rather than simply knowing where the knob is to turn on the radio, adjust the A/C, etc. If the auto controls follow their current trajectory, cell phone use and texting will be the least of our problems.

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  • Keith June 15, 2013 at 6:29 am

    The constitution says nothing about freedom to speak to automobile drivers. Ban all billboards, especially electronic. Ban in-cabin radios, too.

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  • Chainwhipped June 15, 2013 at 11:22 am

    AAA says this stuff is a danger to us all! Finally, a credible auto-centric organization is calling B.S. everyone who insists on acting as their own personal secretary while piloting a few tons of metal in a shared space!

    Surely we’ll see a decline in the number of collisions caused by inattention.

    *OR* nobody truly influential will care to point out that we’re killing each other out of laziness and self-importance.

    Place your bets . . .

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  • Bill Stites June 16, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    I only saw one brief mention in these comments of “cell phone jammers” – this seems like a good solution. Even if just required as a retrofit for convicted offenders [think breathalyzer], or built into new cars so they function while the motor is activated, for example. Perhaps have an exception for 911?
    Clearly not politically feasible on many levels, but let’s at least recognize that there is a solution at hand [no pun intended].

    Here’s another idea – it could fall to the phone companies as it would be easy to implement a block on calls/texts if the phone is traveling more than 20 mph for example [easily known via GPS]??

    Not a simple problem to fix, but really needs creative and aggressive solutions. I know, so unrealistic to expect big responsibility, big enforcement, and bigger follow through by our criminal justice system … but at some point there will be a collective, “enough is enough”.

    This problem is so epidemic, it really is outrageous.

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