Hands-free cell phone use should be banned

More and more jurisdictions are cracking down on the use of cell phones by drivers. To read or text while driving is of course insane, but talking on the cell phone is also bad and is being increasingly banned. Up to now, the use of hands-free devices has not come under much criticism and laws banning cell phone use have exempted them. Some new cars even have such a system built in, adding to the suggestion that its use is safe.

This is not true. Studies show that drivers using hands-free devices are almost as distracted as those using handheld ones. Here’s what researchers have found about the use of cell phones while driving:

  1. There is no safety advantage for hands-free cell phones over hand-held ones.
  2. There is a slight safety advantage for having an adult passenger in the vehicle, even when engaged in conversation.
  3. 85% of drivers report that they use a cell phone while concurrently operating a motor vehicle
  4. During daylight hours, ~10% of drivers are on cell phones
  5. Driver distraction joins alcohol and speeding as major causes of fatalities and injuries
  6. The majority of drivers suffer significant impairment when they use a cell phone
  7. 28% of all crashes were caused by the use of a cell phone to talk, dial, or text
  8. 2 out of 10 drivers who use a cell phone report that they have bumped into a person or object because they were distracted
  9. Cell phone users were involved in more rear-end collisions than when they were intoxicated.
  10. Significantly more accidents when conversing on a cell phone than in the single-task baseline or alcohol conditions.
  11. Impairments associated with cell-phone drivers may be as great as those commonly observed with intoxicated drivers.
  12. Cell phone usage increases the crash risk by a factor of four
  13. Cell-phone driving does not improve with practice

(David L. Strayer, Jason M. Watson, and Frank A. Drews, Cognitive Distraction While Multitasking in the Automobile. (Brian Ross, editor: The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Vol. 54, Burlington: Academic Press, 2011, pp. 29-58)

People tend to think that it is the use of the hands to hold the phone that is the problem and may be puzzled why talking with someone using a hands-free phone device is more dangerous than talking to a real human being in the car. But the problem is a cognitive one, not a physical one. Talking to someone who is in the car does not seem to cause problems because that person is in the same environment and will shut up if something occurs on the road that causes the driver to stop speaking in order to concentrate.

I noticed this just last weekend when four of us were driving on the highway. We were all chatting when the driver had to make a sudden lane change. All the passengers instinctively and immediately stopped talking until the maneuver had been completed and we felt it was safe to talk again. The passenger can even act as an extra set of eyes to notice things the driver might miss. But the person at the other end of the phone, oblivious to what is happening on the road, continues to demand your attention

Similarly, listening to the radio does not seem to cause distractions, likely because the driver does not feel obliged to respond and can shut out the distraction when needed. I have noticed that too. I listen to news radio when driving but when something on the road demands my full attention, I find later that I have absolutely no recall of what was said on the radio during that time period.

The National Transportation Safety Board back in 2012 recommended a ban on the use of hands-free devices too but that seems to have gone nowhere. The NTSB cannot create such a rule. Legislatures are the ones who must do so and they do not seem to want to.

When to comes to driving, I come down strongly on the side of safety. A two-ton vehicle moving at high speed is a dangerous thing, especially to those on the streets who are not similarly protected by a similar shell of steel, such as pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists. I never talk on the phone and refuse to answer it when it rings while I am driving, waiting until I can pull over to see who called and then call back.

Ted Rall wonders if maybe we are going too far in trying to prevent distractions, saying:

Horror novelist Stephen King was nearly killed by a guy distracted by his dog, but it sure would be sad to mandate that dogs be locked in their cages throughout a drive.

But you don’t have to lock dogs in a cage. When I heard what happened to King (a driver hit and almost killed him as he was walking along a country road because the driver’s dog had suddenly come to the front and distracted him, causing him to lose control), I investigated and found that there is a harness that you can put on dogs and the car’s seat belt passes through a loop on it. The dog can sit, lie down, and move around quite comfortably on the back seat but cannot get on the floor or go to the front.

Another big benefit is that in the event of an accident, the harness-belt combination will prevent the dog from getting flung around and hurt or killed, just like seat belts do for human passengers. Our dogs never go in the car without being buckled in and they get excited when they see the harness being taken out because they know it means a car ride. Seeing our dog also buckled in amuses people who see it for the first time but to me it makes perfect sense.


  1. says

    I always found this interesting. You can’t drive talking on the cell phone but you can drive while having an argument with a family member in the back seat. You can’t drive with headphones on, which actually makes sense, but you can drive with your sound system so loud it’s louder than phones. You can’t text and drive but you can eat chicken mcnuggets and be dipping them in the sauce balanced on your knee while you … oops! Semitrailer!

  2. llewelly says

    I agree that carrying on a conversation with a hands free phone is just as dangerous as with one held in your hand.

    But how can you expect cops to reliably distinguish between someone using a phone to carry on a conversation, and someone using a phone to navigate using google maps?

  3. llewelly says

    Marcus Ranum :

    You can’t text and drive but you can eat chicken mcnuggets and be dipping them in the sauce balanced on your knee while you … oops!

    I have had friends who got ticketed for eating while driving. So I suspect that actually depends on state or local law.

    Here is an article which may be interesting -- I’m not sure how good it is.

  4. Who Cares says

    This is interesting seeing the fight they had over here (the Netherlands) about just getting people to phone hands free.
    And the more recent brouhaha when they decided against regulating bikers phoning while biking. The reason for not doing so? It is (too) hard to enforce so we won’t even bother making a law about it.

  5. says

    But how can you expect cops to reliably distinguish between someone using a phone to carry on a conversation, and someone using a phone to navigate using google maps?

    Either way, they’ll just shoot you.

  6. Lofty says

    Nothing will convince the average driver that they can’t multi task while driving. Only long experience gives you the ability to remain alert and avoid using phones. I expect the development of autonomous vehicles will progressively reduce the risk of inattentive drivers until they are completely cut out from control.

  7. says

    My former employer had a ban on any cell phone use while driving on company time or in company vehicles. We did a LOT of driving for work. Policy came from insurance carrier.

  8. aashiq says

    It comes down to a question of control. The person on the other side of a cellphone call would not have a basis to distinguish it from any other call, and there is an obligation to maintain continuity of communication. So, if there is a sudden pause in conversation the person on the other side doesn’t know why.

    Perhaps the solution is videoconferencing via a heads-up display. The driver could then communicate non-verbally as well.

  9. DsylexicHippo says

    While I am not comfortable (yet) with the notion of self-driving cars, it would be great to have a feature for the car to automatically detect accepted cellular calls and switch temporarily to self-driving mode until the conversation is over. I would trust AI over human judgement in this limited context.

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