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Cognitive distraction and hands-free cellphones

In Illinois and in several other states in the nation, it is illegal to use a hand-held cellphone while behind the wheel. This legislation was put in place to reduce the number of people who are killed and injured in distracted driving accidents each year. As a result, many drivers have started using hands-free cellphones as a safe and legal alternative. However, studies show that hands-free cellphones are a significant source of cognitive distraction and may still lead to catastrophic car accidents.

The study, released by AAA, looked at the amount of cognitive distraction that is caused when motorists engage in certain tasks while driving a car equipped with monitoring devices, as well as a simulator vehicle. Researchers measured participants’ heart rate, brain activity, eye movement and response time while they engaged in the following tasks:

  •          Listening to an audio book
  •          Listening to the radio
  •          Talking with a passenger in the vehicle
  •          Composing an email using voice-activated technology
  •          Talking with someone using a hands-free cellphone
  •          Talking with someone using a hand-held cellphone

Surprisingly, the results showed that when participants maintained a conversation using the hands-free cellphone, they were only slightly less distracted than when they used the hand-held cellphone. The hands-free cellphone still caused cognitive distraction.

According to the National Safety Council, cognitive distraction is caused when a person’s brain cannot focus on one complex activity but is forced to concentrate on two tasks simultaneously. In this situation, the brain jumps back and forth from one task to the other, leaving moments in time when the brain is not focused on driving at all. This leaves room for a tragic accident to occur.

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