Study: Handsfree devices don't make driving, talking safer

A Carnegie Mellon study says that holding a cell phone while driving isn't the problem, the danger actually is in listening.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
2 min read

According to an interesting study published earlier this month, driving with a cell phone is just as dangerous whether you use a handsfree device or hold the phone in your hand. The Carnegie Mellon University study found that simply listening, rather than keeping both hands on the steering wheel, is the main distraction to drivers. Neuroscientist Marcel Just tracked 29 volunteers who used a driving simulator while inside an MRI. While steering their virtual car along the winding road, some volunteers were undisturbed while others had to decide whether a statement they heard was true or false.

The study found that volunteers in the latter group hit a guardrail or veered out of their lane more often than those in the former group. Also, the MRI scans found decreased activity in brain areas that are associated with spatial processing and visual information processing.That decreased activity means the brain may have trouble multitasking both activities. "Drivers need to keep not only their hands on the wheel," Just told Science Daily. "They also have to keep their brains on the road."

It's certainly an interesting conclusion, to say the least, mostly because it suggests that handsfree devices and the laws that support them really aren't contributing to safer driving. Just also said that talking on a cell phone might involve a different level of distraction than talking to another passenger in the car. While the passenger is going to be aware of demands on the driver's attention, the person on the other end of a cell phone won't know what's going on. Still, it's not known how the two activities compare. Now, that's a study someone should really do. I'm interested to hear what you think. How does talking on a cell phone differ from listening to the radio or another person in the car?