AAA Suggests No Safety Benefit in Hands-Free

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In the study “Cell Phones and Driving: Research Update,” released in December, the American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety suggests that using hands-free and/or speech-enabled wireless technology while driving may be almost as dangerous as using one hand to pound out a friend’s phone number and the other to wind through traffic. 

In a study that monitored 109 drivers for about a year, AAA found that 3.58 percent of all crashes and near-crashes took place while the driver was dialing and driving, compared to the 3.56 percent taking place while the driver was talking/listening on a handheld device. Another study cited in the report shows that driving performance while using a handheld device was not significantly different than when using a hands-free set. The researchers attribute the nearly identical results to “withdrawal of attention from the processing of information in the driving environment.” Simply put, it’s the level of distraction and not the loss of a hand on the wheel that makes cell phone use while driving dangerous.

“All the traffic safety research that has been done to date on this has found that the cognitive part of the distraction is just as dangerous as the physical part,” asserts Fairley Mahlum, director of communications for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “The fact that you’re involved in a conversation is a distraction in and of itself.”

Hands-free cell phone users are even less likely to notice traffic signals, respond to brake lights, or notice details in visual stimuli than users of their handheld counterparts, according to a 2003 study by the University of Iowa’s Public Policy Center.

Driving while using a phone or mobile device seems to be widely recognized as a serious problem by American drivers. Eighty-three percent of respondents to another AAA phone survey identified talking on the phone as a serious safety problem. Drunk driving weighed in at only five percentage points higher. 

Despite this, 30.3 percent of drivers in the study said they believe hands-free cell phone operation while driving to be much safer than handheld, while 63.5 percent of drivers believe it to be safer in general. 

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