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Research Shows Hands-Free Systems Often Are Too Distracting for Drivers

Aug. 15, 2019

New Jersey law lets drivers use hands-free technology, but research suggests this may be unsafe, given the way this technology affects driving performance.

Hands-free cellphones, apps and in-car infotainment systems are often treated as solutions to the epidemic of distracted driving. Every state that outlaws cellphone use and texting while driving, including New Jersey, permits most drivers to use hands-free devices. Some Englewood residents may even think using this technology is completely safe. Troublingly, however, research suggests that most forms of hands-free technology are actually dangerously distracting.

Too Many Mental Demands

According to the National Safety Council, hands-free devices are dangerous because they create the same cognitive demand as handheld devices. Contrary to popular belief, when faced with two cognitive tasks, the brain does not multitask. Instead, it switches quickly between the two tasks, which can have detrimental effects.

Cognitively distracted drivers may have significantly delayed reaction times. In one study, legally intoxicated drivers showed faster responses than drivers conversing on hands-free cellphones. Mental distraction can also prevent drivers from effectively processing static and moving objects. Drivers facing mental distractions may miss up to half of the visual cues in their immediate environments. Given these functional impairments, driving while mentally distracted can essentially represent negligence.

Recently, two studies tested whether seven hands-free technology systems created impairing levels of distraction. Researchers found that many of the systems were significantly more distracting than drivers might expect.

Disturbing Levels of Distraction

According to WTNH News, one study tested six in-car systems; the second tested the personal assistant app Siri. The study participants took lab tests, completed driving simulations and even drove supervised through a neighborhood. After observing the participants, researchers concluded that four of the six in-vehicle systems were more distracting than handheld cellphones. The hands-free personal assistant app created the most severe distraction of all.

The distraction associated with using these systems may be so pronounced for a few reasons. These include:

  • Complexity of the systems – using many hands-free systems is mentally demanding. If commands are not phrased appropriately, the system may not respond correctly or at all.

  • Tendency to make errors – many hands-free systems still require refinement and are prone to making mistakes. Drivers may experience an even greater level of distraction when addressing these mistakes.

  • Absence of regulatory oversight – the hands-free infotainment systems that are built into vehicles are not currently regulated. Many drivers may not realize that the safety and performance of these systems has not been tested.

Unfortunately, the NSC’s findings indicate that even regulated, error-free and simple systems could still create dangerous levels of distraction. This means that the danger associated with hands-free technology may remain significant in the future.

In New Jersey, the use of hands-free technology is legal. However, drivers who cause accidents while engaging in legal behaviors may still be found negligent. Every driver is responsible for paying attention to the road and other motorists, and distracted drivers fail in this responsibility. Victims of distraction-related accidents may benefit from speaking to an attorney to review their rights and options.