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A number of studies over the past several years have alerted us to the potential dangers of using our cell phones while driving. Now, a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute confirms what we’ve heard before—that dialing, texting, or reaching for a cell phone while driving raises the risk of a crash. Unlike some previous studies, however, this one didn’t find any increased danger in simply talking on the phone.

Study Shows Texting and Dialing Increases Risk

Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study looked at 42 newly licensed drivers 16 or 17 years old along with 109 adults with an average of 20 years behind the wheel. Researchers installed video cameras, global positioning systems, lane trackers, gadgets to measure speed and acceleration, and other sensors in the cars.

The results showed that the risk of a crash or near-miss among young drivers increased more than sevenfold if drivers were dialing or reaching for a cell phone, and fourfold if they were sending or receiving a text message. And although talking showed no increased risk, researchers warned that most drivers have to reach for the phone, dial the number, or punch a button before actually starting to talk.

Other Studies Confirm Results

An April 2013 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found similar results. Researchers reported one clear finding—visual-manual tasks on a hand-held cell phone degrade driver performance and increase risk of accidents. Again, simply talking on the cell phone was not associated with risk. Researchers cautioned that although current hands-free interfaces allow drivers to communicate with their phones via their voices, they still allow and sometimes require visual-manual tasks.

Other studies, however, have found different results. One commissioned by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, for example, released in 2013, found that those using speech-to-text communication systems while driving were three times more distracted than those drivers who are not using a cell phone.

“Just because a new technology does not take the eyes off the road does not make it safe to be used while the vehicle is in motion,” the authors wrote.

Harvard Health agrees, stating in September 2010 that the brain likes to focus on one major activity at a time, and that talking on a cell phone can cause “inattention blindness,” making the talker unaware of anything else going on at the same time. They quote a 2010 study that found drivers talking on a cell phone were more likely than those simply talking to passengers to drift between lanes and miss an exit they were instructed in advance to take.

Studies on Voice-Activated Systems

As more and more phones come with voice-activated capabilities and more cars are equipped with voice-operated systems, questions remain as to what sort of danger this technology will present in the coming years.

There are only a few studies on voice-activated systems so far, but the results are concerning. In August 2013, “Applied Cognitive Psychology” published a study on speech-activated systems and their potential threat to attention. They found that just preparing to speak a command, for instance, has a “huge” effect on response time—enough to potentially delay a driver’s response to road hazards. In other words, simply having to think about and execute voice commands decreases a driver’s ability to notice and quickly respond to events on the road.

The National Safety Council (NSC) also notes that a Carnegie Mellon study took pictures of the brain while drivers listened to sentences and drove on a simulator. The drivers simply listening to sentences had a 37 percent reduction in special awareness, which can directly contribute to cognitive distraction.

Over and over again, the data is telling us to keep our hands on the wheel, eyes open, and thoughts focused on the road to best avoid an accident. Those who don’t may find themselves liable in a car accident lawsuit.

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