Are Hands-free Conversations just as dangerous as ones on a Handheld?

Maria D’Antonio

Many people are familiar with the TV ads that warn viewers of the dangers of texting and driving. By showing an accident victim going through extensive therapy, as well as displaying the text that was instrumental to the crash, the ads demonstrate what can result when drivers have to cease attending to the road to look down at a phone.

What the ads fail to do, however, is mention the larger implications of cell phones and driving.

Current Laws Concerning Phone Usage

There are several states, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, or DOT, that have completely banned handhelds for all drivers, but still allow hands-free phones and Bluetooth. These states include New York, Nevada, and West Virginia.

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DOT also names 41 states that have banned texting, including Colorado, Louisiana, and Alaska. Some laws get specific, such as a ban on all cell phone use—handheld and hands-free—for novice drivers. In Texas there is a ban on handhelds and texting in school zones, but there is not a statewide texting ban.

These are steps in the right direction as these laws are limiting potential distractions for drivers. And although the use of Bluetooth is legal in most cases, it still might not be the answer.

There is nothing wrong with Bluetooth as it is a way to bypass the laws on handhelds, except in Maine, where it is illegal to drive while distracted, according to DOT. Bluetooth, however, does not eliminate the inherent problem with cell phone use because drivers are still being distracted.

Testing your Awareness

If drivers think they are immune to the distracting elements of a conversation, then there are safe ways to see just how far they can stretch their attention. YouTube has many videos to test awareness, but one, called “Test Your Awareness: Whodunnit?” is a mystery in which the detective is trying to find the murderer while the setting is changing all around him. Even with the knowledge of a changing background, it is still extremely difficult to spot all the changes.

A more common awareness test is the gorilla, or selective attention, test that was created by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris. In one test, viewers are asked to count the number of times people wearing white shirts pass a basketball to each other. Sounds easy enough, except there are people wearing black shirts, who are passing another ball amongst themselves. As everyone is passing the basketballs, they are twisting and turning, making the task difficult for the viewer. To coincide with the gorilla test title, a person dressed in a gorilla costume walks across the screen. Chances are, many viewers miss the gorilla because they are focused on counting the number of times the basketball is being passed by people wearing white shirts.

Human Awareness: A Test Conducted by the American Psychological Association

Even knowing that paying attention to the road at all times does not exempt drivers from failing to devote the majority of their attention to the road while carrying on a conversation. According to the American Psychological Association, a study using fMRI machines on undergraduates revealed a disturbing conclusion.

During a driving simulation, the students were asked to navigate a curvy road—one test without added distractions and the other while the students were asked to judge if a sentence was true or false. The added task drew about 40 percent of brain activity in the parietal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for interpreting and coordinating sensory information and motor activity, from the driving task to the listening task.

The brain is simply not equipped to handle two important tasks at the same time. Driving and having a conversation require too much brain power for the brain to split attention evenly. This research came out before the wide use of text messaging, which has the added distraction of the driver taking their eyes off of the road.

However, the same is not true for conversations held with other passengers in the car. In the same article, researchers discussed the role that passengers play. Other occupants in the car tend to also pay attention to the road, which supports the driver. Also, car occupants sometimes talk about the road, reinforcing the driver’s attention.

The safest way to drive is to be fully attentive to the road. Though in today’s world of constant communication that tip is probably a vain piece of advice. Instead, perhaps this article will help you realize just how precious your brain’s resources are, and that driving and holding a conversation may be asking a bit too much of our brains.

Test your awareness by watching “Test Your Awareness: Whodunnit?” on YouTube or by watching this video in which your selective attention is tested.

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