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Hands-Free Cellphone Use – How Safe Is it, Really?

As of the date of this blog, Texas has no statewide law banning the use of cell phones while driving for all drivers. However, since 2009, more than 90 cities have adopted one of three different cellphone use bans:

  1. Ban on all uses of wireless communications devices while driving.
  2. Ban on texting while driving.
  3. Ban on texting and other manual uses of wireless communication devices while driving.

Austin’s city ordinance allows the use of cellphone and other electronic devices as long as they are “hands-free”, meaning that the driver does not need to use his or her hands to operate them while he or she is driving.

The Danger of Inattentional Driving

According to many sources, talking or texting on a cell phone is the main cause of driver distraction which in turn is responsible for approximately 80% of all motor vehicle crashes. The risk of texting and driving comes from the fact that in order to do so, the driver’s eyes have to be taken away from the road. However, talking and driving on their own have some inherent risks that most people are unaware of. The situation in which a driver’s mind is engaged in something other than driving can lead to a phenomenon known as “inattentional blindness”.

Inattentional blindness causes a person’s brain to miss what the eye sees. The brain does not interpret the image, impairing the driver even when he or she does not realize the problem. While talking on a cell phone and driving may seem pretty innocent and quite easy to do, it actually distracts drivers pretty significantly, and can ultimately result in a car accident. When the brain is engaged in a conversation, attention and focus are diverted from to the driving task at hand. This results in slower reaction times to changing roadway conditions, such as changing traffic signals, a pedestrian crossing the road, or traffic stopped ahead.

Research shows that there is a one-third decrease in activity in the part of the brain that processes moving images while talking on a cell phone. By way of example imagine trying to talk on a cellphone while reading. The brain is not able to interpret what you are reading and what you are hearing/saying in equal measure. Similarly, the brain cannot focus on the road while you are talking—although the consequences are worse than failing to pay attention to a book.

The Danger of Emotional Driving

Hands-free cell phone conversations can also lead to dangerous emotional experiences in a driver. “Emotional driving” can be just as dangerous as texting on a cellphone. Your judgment may become clouded as you focus more and more on an emotionally-charged interaction, idea, or event. Even though a person may be looking straight ahead at the road, his or her mental state may be somewhere else—thinking about a problem at work or a family dispute. Similar to the effects of negative emotions, positive life events can also leave a person just as distracted on the road. A few examples of positive situations that could result in distracted driving include:

  • Receiving a raise at work.
  • Getting good/exciting news.
  • Heading to or from a celebration.
  • Winning a prize.
  • Listening/singing along to a song you really like.

Operating a vehicle while experiencing strong emotions can result in erratic driving, road rage, and violating traffic rules. Emotion-based distraction can alter a driver’s decision-making abilities to the point that he or she becomes a danger on the road. Being involved in an intense phone call, even hands-free, can be upsetting enough to affect the driver’s abilities.

Talking to Passenger v. Talking on a hands-free device

Talking with someone who is sitting next to you in the car is actually very different than having a conversation via a hands-free device. Having a passenger in the car usually means another set of eyes to identify and point out a hazard on the road. Further, talking to a passenger that is next to you allows you to more quickly and clearly identify the response of your audience though gestures or body language (even if not directly looking at your passenger) whereas when you talk on the phone, you have to be more engaged to ascertain the listener’s response. If a hazard appears on the road, your passenger will likely stop talking to allow you to assess the situation. A listener on a hands-free device is more often than not, unable to know what road conditions you are experiencing while you talk.

Even if you closely follow the traffic rules, you might unfortunately still be involved in a car accident. If this is the case, and you are injured in a car accident, call Pastrana Law Firm at 512-474-4487 for a consultation, free of cost and with no commitment.

4 Responses to “Hands-Free Cellphone Use – How Safe Is it, Really?”

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