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Roads no safer with hands-free devices, study finds

Woman in car with cell phone earphone

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Using a hands-free device does not eliminate driving errors, but in fact increases them, according to a growing body of research, which suggests new technology is not making the roads safer and that distracted-driving legislation may not go far enough.

A study from the University of Alberta released on Friday found a spike in potentially dangerous behaviour among drivers who were talking on hands-free cellular devices compared with those focused solely on driving. The surge in errors also corresponded with a rise in brain activity and heart rate, according to the researchers.

Yagesh Bhambhani, a professor in the university's faculty of rehabilitation medicine who oversaw the study, said there was not only an increase in the number of errors during simulated road tests, but also in the severity of errors.

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"People running through stop signs, people crossing the centre line, one person actually had an accident during a conversation," Prof. Bhambhani said.

And even more concerning, he added, is that the study involved only a small group – 26 healthy male subjects using a virtual-reality driving simulator – not the general population in various states of health or on real city streets.

"You'd expect errors to be even greater or the severity of the errors even greater," Prof. Bhambhani said.

That report follows a U.S. study, carried out by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, which found voice-to-text applications are not much safer than manual texting while driving.

The study of 43 individuals asked drivers to navigate a closed course without using cell phones, then while performing voice activated exercises using Siri for iPhones and Vlingo for Android smartphones, and then while texting manually.

The study, which was released last month, found drivers took twice as long to react no matter the texting method compared to when they were not distracted. And, hands-free texting did not allow subjects to keep their eyes focused on the task of driving, either. They glanced away from the road whether manual texting or giving vocal instructions.

"These findings suggest that using voice-to-text applications to send and receive text messages while driving do not increase driver safety compared to manual texting," the authors wrote, calling for more study.

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A Canadian Automobile Association study found that it takes an average of 33.6 seconds to respond to a text message, which the organization suggested is the equivalent to passing 85 parked cars, 36 homes or five intersections while driving on a residential road.

Jurisdictions nationwide have laws against distracted driving, but tend to allow hands-free communication devices. Meanwhile, auto makers and cell-phone providers are adding new hands-free gadgets in a bid to make driving safer.

But according to the Ottawa-based Traffic Injury Research Foundation, which reports that 20 to 30 per cent of road crashes are caused by driver distraction, those initiatives are missing the mark.

"The current focus on hand-held phone use as part of the distracted-driving problem is akin to picking the low-hanging fruit," the foundation said in a recent report. "The danger is, once these laws are in place, legislators and the public thinking 'problem solved' when, in fact, cell phone use is the tip of the iceberg."

The Alberta study asked participants to drive for four minutes without distraction, then for two minutes while carrying on a hands-free conversation, and found that every driver committed errors while chatting.

"You're stressed when you're driving and taking a phone call at the same time," said Mayank Rehani, a graduate student who was involved in the study.

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He hopes this study influences personal behaviour regardless of how far the legislation currently goes. He has already stopped making and taking hands-free calls.

"It doesn't seem to be quite connecting with the public and getting into the public conscience that I don't need to take that phone call, or this can probably wait," he said.

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About the Author
Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More

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