In California and many other states, it is illegal to use a hand-held cell phone while driving. This legislation came after thousands of people lost their lives in distracted driving accidents. Rather than use a hand-held cellphone while driving and risk getting a ticket, many people have started using hands-free cell phones.

Marketed as being a safe alternative to hand-held cell phones, hands-free cellular devices have increased in popularity with drivers. Yet researchers have found that even hands-free cell phones act as a significant distraction to drivers.

The study

In a study released by AAA, researchers measured the degree of cognitive distraction caused by certain tasks. Researchers asked drivers to drive a simulator vehicle, as well as a car equipped with devices to monitor driver responses, while performing the following tasks:

  • Maintain a conversation with other passengers in the vehicle
  • Listen to the radio
  • Listen to an audio book
  • Talk using a hand-held and a hands-free cellphone
  • Compose an email with voice-control technology

Researchers measured the participants’ heart rate, eye movement, brain activity and response time. They found that the difference in cognitive distraction caused by a hands-free cell phone when compared to the hand-held cell phone was minimal.

Understanding and avoiding cognitive distraction

Cognitive distraction happens when a driver’s concentration is on something other than the road ahead. The National Safety Council explains that the human brain cannot focus on two complex tasks simultaneously, such as having a conversation with another person and focusing on driving. Instead, the driver’s focus switches back and forth between one task and the other. This creates minutes where drivers are not focused on the road at all, leaving time for a deadly car accident to occur.

Law enforcement officers urge drivers to avoid using any type of cellular device while behind the wheel. Drivers should always concentrate on the road and whatever hazards may present themselves.