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Feel Safer with Hands-Free Texting? It’s An Illusion

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In October 2013, technology columnist for the New York Times David Pogue reported on hands-free texting in Scientific American. Pogue’s argument: hands-free technology is no safer while driving.

Most cell phones today have hands-free features. They may read text messages aloud, take dictated replies, search the Internet, check emails, and dial phone numbers all with voice commands. Newer phones offer voice control without having to press a button to get started. You simply speak a certain word (like “okay”) and the phone will be alerted to listen to your next command.

These types of advances have led us to believe that we will be safer using these devices in our cars. But according to Pogue and a number of research studies, it’s just not true.

Isn’t Hands-Free Safer?

Pogue admits that he, too, thought hands-free devices were safer. You don’t have to take your eyes off the road, and with many cell phones, you didn’t even have to look down to punch a button. Yet a number of studies have indicated that just talking on a cell phone is distracting—not because of the manual tasks involved, but because of the mental distraction. Harvard Health Publications notes one study using a driving simulator that found drivers talking on the cell phone were more likely to drift between lanes and miss an exit than those who weren’t.

A 2013 study commissioned by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Study found that those who used hands-free cell phones to talk or send messages were at least two times more distracted than those not using a cell phone at all.

But surely, despite these study results, hands-free texting and calling is safer than hands-on texting and calling? Apparently not.

Hands-Free Texting No Safer

A study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute observed people driving while texting by hand, while texting by voice, and without texting at all. The results? Hands-free texting offered no real safety advantage over manual texting. Other results included:

  • Driver response times were significantly delayed no matter which texting method was used. In both methods, drivers took twice as long to react.
  • The amount of time drivers spent looking at the roadway ahead was significantly less when texting, no matter which method was used.
  • Manual texting required slightly less time than the voice-to-text method, but driver performance was roughly the same with both.
  • Drivers felt less safe when they were texting, but safer when using voice-to-text methods, even though performance suffered equally with both methods.

“If a driver who is texting is watching the road less often and their reaction times are slower, then that driver is less able to respond to a sudden roadway danger, like a swerving vehicle or a pedestrian in the street,” said Christine Yager, lead author of the study.

“It doesn’t make intuitive sense,” writes Pogue. “It seems as though texting by voice should be safer than looking at your phone. We already knew that hands-free phone conversations are just as dangerous as hands-on, and now we know the same thing about texting by voice.”