Hands-free devices are often dangerously distracting for drivers

West Virginia drivers can’t use handheld cell phones while driving, but they can use hands-free devices, which may prove just as distracting and dangerous.

Cell phones are widely recognized as one of the more absorbing distractions that drivers face today. Many people in Charleston understand the dangers of using handheld cell phones to text, browse, post or talk while driving. Lawmakers in West Virginia have also acknowledged this risk by banning drivers from using handheld cell phones for any purpose.

At the same time, many drivers and legislators may overlook the danger that hands-free devices introduce. In West Virginia, drivers can legally use these devices while behind the wheel. Unfortunately, research shows that these devices may create an unacceptable cognitive burden and contribute to many distracted driving accidents.

Impacts of cognitive distraction

The National Safety Council explains that cognitive distraction can put drivers at risk for accidents for various reasons. The primary underlying issue is that the brain cannot effectively multitask, regardless of what most people may think. When juggling complex tasks, such as driving and talking on a cell phone, the brain actually switches quickly between tasks.

These brief periods of inattention can lead to flawed perceptions, poor decisions and delayed reactions. Research suggests that drivers who are cognitively distracted ignore up to half of the visual cues in front of them. Another study suggests that intoxicated drivers exhibit quicker response times than mentally distracted drivers. Due to these handicaps, cognitively distracted drivers may be more likely to cause severe accidents and serious injuries.

Mental distractions with manual or visual aspects may be even more dangerous than distractions that are exclusively cognitive. However, this does not mean that purely cognitive distractions are safe for drivers. Research suggests that even systems that were designed for use during driving may distract drivers too much.

Risks of 'safe' systems

In 2014, the University of Utah and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety conducted complimentary studies regarding hands-free devices and driver distraction. One study tested six hands-free in-vehicle infotainment systems. The other focused on Siri, the personal assistant app for iPhone users.

Researchers observed 162 volunteers as they used these systems while driving, doing a simulation or taking laboratory tests. Researchers reached the following conclusions about the systems and associated level of distraction:

  • More than half of the in-car systems distracted drivers more than a conversation via handheld cell phone would. Only two systems were less distracting than talking on a handheld cell phone.
  • Siri was the most distracting system of all. Two drivers rear-ended other vehicles during the simulation while using the personal assistant app.
  • Systems that were error-prone created the greatest level of distraction. Drivers often had to concentrate carefully on using these systems or correcting errors.

The fact that systems specifically designed for in-car use proved so distracting has troubling implications for hands-free systems in general. Sadly, though, many drivers may fail to recognize the risks of using these systems. Consequently, despite progressive state laws, West Virginia drivers may face a high risk of distraction-related accidents.

Recourse for victims

People who have been hurt because of driver distraction or other reckless behaviors may have recourse. However, proving that another driver's inattention caused an accident may be challenging. To improve the likelihood of a favorable outcome, victims may want to consider consulting with a personal injury attorney. An attorney may be able to offer advice on documenting the accident and pursuing appropriate compensation.

Keywords: distracted, driving, accident, injury