People tend to assume that illegal activities are dangerous, while legal activities are perfectly safe. In the case of making phone calls in cars, that's not the case. According to a new study from the Queensland University of Technology, calling hands-free is just as distracting as using a regular phone to call. If you've ever sat next to a driver trying to make a hands-free call, that won't come as any kind of surprise.
The study put drivers into a simulator and monitored their performance and reaction times while they drove. They drove variously without any phone, with a handheld phone, and with a hands-free phone. The test included everyday events that a driver might encounter.
"We took a group of drivers and exposed them to a virtual road network which included a pedestrian entering the driver’s peripheral vision from a footpath and walking across a pedestrian crossing," lead author Dr. Shimul Haque told QUT News.
The level of distraction for both kinds of phone was the same. It took them 40% longer to react than the participants not using a phone. That, says Haque, is an extra 36 feet when traveling at 25 mph, more than enough to kill pedestrians in the city, and disastrous at freeway speeds.
Not only are these drivers slower to react, they also overreact when they finally realize that there's a problem. They jump on the brakes instead of stopping in a controlled way. "Distracted drivers on average reduced the speed of their vehicle faster and more abruptly than non-distracted drivers, exhibiting excess braking," said Haque. This overcompensation increases the likelihood of another vehicle rear-ending them.
So what is it that makes a phone conversation so distracting? Haque's theory is that concentrating on the conversation leads to the brain dropping "packets" of visual information, which leads to drivers looking at objects but not seeing them. This might also happen in a conversation with a passenger, but the nature of a real-life, in-car conversation means that the conversation itself can adapt to road conditions.
"The distraction of a mobile phone conversation is not the same as an in-car conversation with a passenger," says Haque, "because the non-driver can alter their dialogue based on the driving environment, for example stop talking when approaching a complex driving situation." That is, a passenger knows when to shut up, and the driver doesn't feel the need to reply all the time, because the passenger understands the situation too.
Allowing hands-free phones in cars, then, is not safe at all. Worse, because it is accepted to be safe, otherwise responsibly people might make hands-free calls when—if better-informed—they might choose not to. It's similar in concept to people freely partaking of legal cigarettes and alcohol, even though they are far more hazardous than many non-legal drugs. At least weed is now finally becoming legitimate. Perhaps it's time to just ban all phones from cars, at any time.