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Study: Hands-Free Mobile Phones No Cure for Driver Distraction
Journalist: Dan McDonough, Jr.
Wireless NewsFactor
August 17, 2001

Drivers talking on the phone demonstrated significantly slower responses to traffic signals and missed signals entirely much more often than those listening to the radio - with no measurable difference between those using handheld phones and those using hands-free devices.

With all the political furor erupting over the use of wireless phones while driving, a number of states have been considering or have adopted laws that require callers to use hands-free devices. A study released Thursday claims this approach likely will do no good.

The U.S. National Safety Council found that driver distraction due to phone calls can occur regardless of whether handheld or hands-free phones are used. It also claims that mobile phone conversations create much higher levels of driver distraction than listening to the radio or to audio books.

The contention of the scientists who conducted the study is that it is active engagement in a conversation that causes higher levels of driver distraction -- not whether the driver is physically holding a mobile phone.

If this study is accepted as scientifically sound, it will open a Pandora's box on the wireless industry, which has been defending the use of mobile phones in the car by developing safer ways to operate them. Now, the industry's strongest position -- that hands-free kits alleviate the dangers -- is being debunked.

More Research Required
"A great deal more research like this is needed," National Safety Council president Alan C. McMillan said, "to help us fully understand the public policy implications of the growing use of cell phones and other electronic devices -- such as global positioning systems, faxes and computers -- in moving vehicles."

Although McMillan's assertion that research of other types of devices in cars ought to be conducted may be stating the obvious, the council's position already seems clear on wireless phones: They are no good while driving -- hands-free or not.

The authors of the report suggested that legislative initiatives designed to restrict handheld devices while permitting hands-free devices are not likely to significantly reduce driver distractions associated with wireless phone conversations.

Phones: The Top Distraction
The National Safety Council study -- conducted by researchers at the University of Utah -- was published in the August/September 2001 issue of the organization's Injury Insights. The study used 64 participants in controlled, simulated driving conditions.

Folks in the study were randomly assigned to listen and change radio stations, listen to audio books, engage in conversations while holding mobile phones, and engage in conversations using hands-free mobile phones.

Researchers said the people who were involved in phone conversations showed significantly slower responses to traffic signals and missed signals entirely much more often than those who were listening to the radio or an audio book. The key finding, however, was that there was no measurable difference in driver responses between those subjects using handheld phones and those using hands-free devices.

Don't Believe the Hype
It may not be any surprise that the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) has a different take on this subject:

"The wireless industry has long held that education is the key to addressing the issue of driver distraction," CTIA president and chief executive Tom Wheeler said. "Any activity a driver engages in, besides the task of driving, has the potential to distract."

The CTIA suggests that drivers must be reminded of when it is appropriate to use a wireless phone, change a CD or look at a map while driving. Nevertheless, it contends that such activities can be done in a safe way.

But with the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration claiming that some form of driver distraction is a contributing factor in 20 percent to 30 percent of all crashes, this issue will not easily fall off the political radar. With the latest study, the CTIA's battle has gotten a bit tougher. 

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