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Drivers are Equally Distracted by Hands-Free and Hand-Held Devices

California law prohibits using hand-held cell phones to talk or text while driving, but it allows the use of hands-free setups in the car. In theory, it makes sense to draw this legal distinction between devices that have to be operated manually and those that don't. In practice, a new study finds that it really doesn't matter whether you've got Bluetooth, a speakerphone, or whether you're holding your phone to your ear with one hand on the steering wheel. All kinds of devices are equally as distracting to drivers.

This study, written up a few days ago by The Washington Post, tested the reaction time of drivers talking on hand-held and hands-free phones, as well as a control group that was not talking on the phone at all. They found that drivers talking on hand-held phones had a 40% slower reaction to a pedestrian entering a crosswalk compared with those not on phones. Likewise, drivers with hands-free setups also had a 40% slower reaction time than the undistracted drivers.

According to experts, the reason for this is that in addition to all the physical maneuvering required in order to talk on a phone and drive at the same time, carrying on any conversation with someone who is not in your vehicle requires you to use a part of your brain also needed for driving. So no matter the setup, the primary issue is where you're directing most of your attention (i.e. figuring out your dinner plans vs. what's happening on the road around you). It's like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, except that people's lives are at stake.

I doubt this finding will immediately affect California law, but I do wonder if it might signal the beginning of a shift on how we think about distracted driving. Of course, cell phones aren't the only possible distraction while driving, but they are the biggest. And currently, California law only doles out consequences for a fraction of the cell phone conversations taking place in cars. If law enforcement is only targeting drivers using hand-held phones, think of all the distracted drivers out there talking on hands-free devices because they've been told its safer, and because they know they're in compliance with the law.

This might be part of the reason why California's cell phone laws haven't reduced accident rates by as much as lawmakers had initially hoped. In fact, an August 2013 paper out of the Colorado School of Mines articulates this precisely. The paper, which finds no significant difference in the accident rate since California's cell phone laws went into effect, admits that it is difficult to explain exactly why the rate has gone unchanged. The paper reads:

"... In other words, while we find that accidents did not decrease due to the cell phone ban, we are unable to say if the lack of an effect is because cell phone use does not affect accidents, because drivers substituted to other disruptive but legal hands-free or text messaging technologies, or because weak compliance failed to reduce cell phone use."

Having litigated hundreds of motor vehicle collisions, I have seen far too many cell phone-related accidents to believe that talking on a cell phone while driving does not increase your chances of getting in an accident, and I believe most would agree with me. But I do think the paper's other proposed explanations are both viable, and I suspect that the reason why we haven't seen much of a change in California accident statistics probably involves some combination of the two.

In my cases, I want to know as soon as possible what the phone records of any defendant reflect in the hour or so leading up to and immediately after any crash. There is a lot to be learned from these records in a law suit that can directly benefit my clients in their cases. Really, how many people do you know who have switched to hands-free technology in order to be able to talk on the phone while driving? Do you ever find that you have just missed your exit because you are engaged in hands free chatting? If so, does knowing that hands-free is just as distracting as hand-held change your thoughts on distracted driving in California? Please let us know in the comments section.

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