Guest Post: Is Hands-Free Really Safer?

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On Monday I wrote about the legal problems associated with the hazards presented by GPS for professional drivers. Huntsville, Alabama attonrey Jeff Blackwell has agreed to let me re-publish his blog explaing why in-car devices like GPS are hazardous.

The Alabama Legislature has been debating bills that would prohibit the use of handheld devices like cellphones while driving. Last year, Georgia passed a similar hands-free law. Is hands-free safer? Will a hands-free law reduce needless car accidents and injuries in Alabama?

A National Safety Council public opinion poll indicates 80% of drivers believe hands-free devices are safer. Yet, safety experts remain doubtful. The Senior Director of the Transportation Initiative at the National Safety Council had this to say on the topic:

While many drivers honestly believe they are making the safe choice by using a hands-free device, it’s just not true.

The problem is the brain does not truly multi-task. Just like you can’t read a book and talk on the phone, you can’t safely operate a vehicle and talk on the phone.

A journalist asked the hosts of MythBusters the question. What did they do? They tested the issue with a driving simulator at Stanford University. The simulation involved 30 people driving in a busy, virtual neighborhood while talking on a cellphone. Half the drivers used handheld phones. Half talked hands-free. The results were amazingly similar. Only one driver passed the test in each group. Almost identical numbers crashed or drove the wrong way. The MythBusters conclusion:

It is no safer to use a hands-free device while driving than it is to use a handset.

I have mixed feelings on the issue. Do I believe hands-free is safer? Yes and no. Driver distractions are MANUAL, VISUAL and COGNITIVE. What are some manual distractions? Eating or drinking while driving. Reaching for items in the car. What are some visual distractions? Looking for items in the car. Watching an electronic device. Reading billboards (with their ridiculous clown lawyer ads). What are some cognitive distractions? Talking to passengers. Daydreaming. Feeling exhausted or fatigued. What makes handheld cellphones so dangerous? They involve ALL three types of distraction at the same time.

With a hand-free device, you reduce the manual and visual distractions while driving. I think that does increase safety. The problem is that many drivers don’t fully consider cognitive distractions. While most people realize that looking or reaching while driving diverts focus and attention, they tend to discount cognitive issues. Instead, they (wrongly) think they can multi-task. Many people are biased about their ability to multi-task. They wrongly believe they can safely concentrate on driving while mentally performing other tasks.

I think the Alabama Legislature should pass a hands-free law. It’s a start. If handheld devices are less accessible while driving, maybe some of the most dangerous activities will decrease. Maybe we won’t see reckless drivers surfing the internet with their phones while trying to drive. While the perception of hands-free safety is certainly greater than the reality, we should pass a hand-free law and carefully study accident statistics in the next few years.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett, Moore & Rehm, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

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