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DTCI: Hands-free cell calls while driving are not safer

James W. Hehner
September 1, 2010
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DTCI-Hehner-JamesIt is hoped that you had the opportunity to read an article written by my friend, Dave Temple, regarding the dangers of using your cell phone or PDA while driving, which was published in the March 17-30, 2010, edition of the Indiana Lawyer. Dave’s article caused me to wonder whether a hands-free device – such as speakerphone or headset – makes cell phone use safer while driving.

After all, in recent years many states around the country have enacted laws requiring drivers to use hands-free devices for their cellular telephones while operating a vehicle. These laws would lead most of us to believe that the use of hands-free devices is safer than using your hand to hold a phone while driving. You might be surprised to find that scientific studies do not support the conclusion that hands-free devices are safer. In fact those studies demonstrate exactly the opposite.

A University of Utah research study demonstrated that “[b]oth handheld and hands-free cell phones impaired driving, with no significant difference in the degree of impairment. That ‘calls into question driving regulations that prohibited handheld cell phones and permit hands-free cell phones,’ the researchers write.” The University of Utah News Center, “Drivers on Cell Phones are as Bad as Drunks” (2006), at www.unews.utah.edu/p/?r=062206-1.

The University of Utah study found that “[m]otorists who talk on either handheld or hands-free cell phones drove slightly slower, were 9 percent slower to hit the brakes, displayed 24 percent more variation in following distance as their attention switched between driving and conversing, were 19 percent slower to resume normal speed after braking and were more likely to crash.” In fact, three of the study participants actually rear-ended the pace car. Id.

A white paper released by the National Safety Council in March 2010 entitled “Understanding the Distracted Brain: Why Driving While Using Hands-free Cell Phones Is Risky Behavior” revealed that driving while talking on a cell phone – whether a handheld or hands-free device – increases the risk of injury and property crashes fourfold. National Safety Council, “Understanding the Distracted Brain: Why Driving While Using Hands-Free Cell Phones is Risky Behavior” (2010), at www.nsc.org/safety_road/Distracted_Driving/Pages/CognitiveDistraction.aspx.

Amazingly, the University of Utah study found that the level of impairment from using a cell phone while driving is the same as driving with a blood alcohol limit of 0.08 percent. “Drivers on Cell Phones Are as Bad as Drunks.” No responsible driver would ever get behind the wheel of a car with 0.08 percent blood alcohol content; however, that same driver might think nothing of jumping into his vehicle and carrying on a conversation on his cell phone.

The evidence is clear that using a cell phone with or without a hands-free device is dangerous. The next time you get into your vehicle consider turning off your phone before you begin driving and allow your calls go to voicemail; after all, that’s what voicemail is for.

Tell your friends, family, and clients that you will no longer use the phone or take calls while driving. Talk to your children and try to explain to them the dangers of using a cell phone while driving. Employers should consider having a written policy that prohibits employees from using a phone or PDA while driving.

The safest choice is to not use a cell phone while driving. Do not delude yourself into thinking that a hands-free device is a safer alternative. Help protect yourself and others and turn off your phone the next time you get in your car.•

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Jim Hehner is a partner in the Indianapolis firm of Hehner & Associates and is on the board of directors of DTCI. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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