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Hands-free isn't distraction-free

Cellphones are major contributors when it comes to deadly traffic accidents. According to the National Safety Council, nearly one-quarter of all crashes involve cellphone use. We addressed this alarming phenomenon in a recent blog post.

Despite the indisputable dangers of using a cellphone while driving, people still do it. And many try to reduce the risk by going hands-free. Bluetooth-enabled vehicles make it easy to dial up a friend or family member without even touching your phone. However, if you think hands-free devices are safer, you're mistaken.

Studies have shown that talking on a cellphone is a major distraction, regardless of whether you're actually holding the phone. One study found that chatting on a phone while driving - hands-free or not - is just as dangerous as driving drunk.

Why is it so risky?

With our limited brain power, we don't have the ability to drive safely and attentively while also focusing on a cellphone conversation.

It takes mental effort to carry on a conversation. You have to listen to the other person (which might require tuning out the noise around you). You have to anticipate their possible responses while formulating your own. Your mind automatically forms mental pictures of the topic of conversation. And, since the other person isn't sitting next to you, your brain visualizes them as well, getting caught up in another layer of abstraction.

Talking on the phone impairs your ability to process critical visual cues. It can even lead to tunnel vision, causing drivers to miss up to 50 percent of what's going on around them, even while they're staring out the windshield.

What about voice-to-text?

Voice-to-text apps, it turns out, are just as risky as texting while driving. In one alarming study, those who participated in either activity were twice as sluggish in their reaction times as those who weren't on their phones. What's more, drivers who use voice-to-text end up spending more time looking at their screens - likely to verify that the text is correct and to fix mistakes.

Hands-free devices also create a false sense of safety. Often vastly overestimating their ability to multitask, drivers don't realize the extent of their distraction until it's too late.

What about passengers?

Passengers can be distracting, too. Inexperienced drivers often lack the judgment and focus to be able to safely carry on a conversation. Hence, many states (Colorado included) impose passenger limits on newly licensed teen drivers.

For adults, however, conversing with a passenger isn't as dangerous as talking on the phone. Passengers can adapt their conversation to the situation around you. They act as a second pair of eyes and can even help warn you of dangers. In general, it requires less mental energy to talk to a passenger in person than it does to converse with a disembodied voice over the phone.

Putting away distractions means putting down the phone

The bottom line? When it comes to distracted driving, cellphones are one of the biggest culprits, and hands-free devices are no better. Err on the safe side by putting your phone away every time you get behind the wheel.

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