In New Jersey and in many other states in the nation, drivers are prohibited from using hand-held cell phones while behind the wheel. This legislation came after the rise in fatal car accidents caused by distracted drivers and people using their cellphones while driving. As a result of the ban of hand-held cell phones, motorists started using hands-free cellphones. While these devices allow drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road as they talk on the phone, they may not be as safe as some think.
A study published in AAA found that the cognitive distraction caused by hands-free cell phone use is significant and can cause car accidents. During the study, researchers asked participants to perform several distractive tasks while driving a simulator vehicle, as well as an actual vehicle equipped with monitoring devices. The tasks included the following:
Talking on a hand-held cell phone
Talking on a hands-free cell phone
Carrying on a conversation with a passenger in the car
Listening to the radio
Listening to an audio book
Composing an email using voice-activated technology
As drivers performed these tasks, researchers measured their eye movement, brain activity, heart rate and response time. The results found that when drivers used hands-free cell phones they were only slightly less distracted than when they used a hand-held cell phone.
Cognitive distraction occurs when people are concentrating on something other than the task at hand. The human brain cannot focus on two complex tasks at the same time. Instead, it bounces back and forth between one task and the other. For drivers, this leaves moments where they are not focused on driving at all.