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Talking, in Addition to Texting, Distracting Drivers with Cell Phones

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A number of states have already made it illegal to text while driving. In September 2013, The University of Washington reported on a study that found nearly half of those driving distracted were texting on their cell phones.

Yet texting isn’t the only thing that can be distracting. According to Harvard Health Publications, about one-third of U.S. traffic accidents each year are attributed to people actually talking on cell phones. Is talking really such a distracting activity, even if we’re using a hands-free device?

All Tasks Distract Drivers

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) completed a study in April 2013 showing distracted driving as a tangible threat to public safety. The results showed that all tasks associated with cell phone use, including reaching for the phone, dialing, and texting, increased the risk of getting into a crash by three times.

The researchers noted that once the driver was actually talking, there was no direct crash risk associated with that activity. Still, before talking, all drivers engaged in other tasks like locating the phone, looking up the number, touching the keys, dialing, and other tasks associated with taking their eyes off the road.

Harvard Health Publications notes other studies that have come to different conclusions, however. One using a driving simulator, for example, found that drivers talking on the cell phone were more likely to drift between lanes and miss an exit than those who weren’t. Some argue that talking with a passenger should present equal risks, but the researchers found this wasn’t the case. When talking with a passenger, drivers would stop when facing traffic problems, or even engage in conversation about navigating traffic with the passenger until the problem had passed. When on the cell phone, however, drivers made no such modifications in their conversations.

Other Research Supports the Findings

There’s more research supporting the notion that it’s not just texting that’s distracting drivers. 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. Researchers also noted that using speech-to-text-in-car communication systems did not improve things—drivers were three times more distracted than those not using cell phones.

An earlier 2009 study examined the question of hands-free versus regular phone use while driving, and found that talking on the phone, regardless of the phone type, had negative impacts on performance behind the wheel, especially in detecting and identifying important events. “Performance while using a hands-free phone was rarely found to be better than when using a handheld phone,” the researchers wrote.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) adds that so far, the research “indicates that the cognitive distraction of having a hands-free phone conversation causes drivers to miss the important visual and audio cues that would ordinarily help you avoid a crash.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that every day in the U.S., more than 9 people are killed and more than 1,060 injured in crashes reported to involve a distracted driver, and notes that “distracted driving” includes “things like using a cell phone, texting, and eating.”