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Hands-Free Phone Talk Can Distract Drivers
A study released on Thursday suggests that simply talking on a cellular phone while behind the wheel -- whether using a hands-free or hand-held device -- slows a driver's response time and diverts attention more than other common in-car distractions.
With 120 million cell phone subscriptions in the United States, and an estimated 60 percent of cell phone use happening on the road, automakers and cellular companies have been racing to sell phone services built into vehicles, such as General Motors Corp.'s GM.N OnStar.
But the report by four scientists at the University of Utah adds to a growing body of research that suggest calling and driving poses a danger to motorists, regardless of the type of phone they use.
Earlier this year, New York became the first state to ban hand-held cell phones in vehicles, allowing hands-free units instead. Three states have less restrictive bans, while 40 other states and local governments are considering similar measures.
"Our data suggest that legislative initiatives that restrict hand-held devices but permit hands-free devices are not likely to reduce interference from the phone conversation," the researchers said.
"We found that conversing on either a hand-held or a hands-free cell phone led to significant decrements in simulated driving performance."
The Utah scientists conducted their study by having 64 people respond to simulated traffic signals while either talking on a cell phone, listening to the radio or listening to an audio book. The cell phone users missed twice as many signals as the people listening to the radio or audio books, regardless of whether they were using a hand-held phone or a hands-free unit.
A summary of the research was published by the National Safety Council.
JURY STILL OUT
"While no one study proves cell phone use is dangerous or distracting, when you take all the studies as a whole they all point in that direction," he said.
The cellular industry has been fighting back in recent months, arguing that cell phones are one of several distractions drivers face and that there's no established link between cell phone use and increased traffic accidents.
"The reality of the situation from the current crash data available is that wireless phones aren't contributing to a significant number of crashes," said Tom Wheeler, president of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, in testimony to Congress in May.
Most studies on driver distraction and cell phones "have recommended additional data collection and have suggested education over legislation as the key to increasing the responsible use of wireless phones," Wheeler said.
GM and Ford Motor Co. have each committed $10 million to study driving distractions, including cell phone use. Each are expected to release some results from their studies by the end of the year.
Other industries are also keeping a close eye on such research. State Farm, the largest auto insurance company in the United States, has a committee that watches developments in cell phone use and cars, said spokesman Dave Hurst. He said the company had not come to any conclusions about whether cell phone use should be a factor in insurance rates.