Many jurisdictions have now, at least to some extent, banned the use of hand-held devices while driving. Some states have banned the use of hand-held cellphones for all drivers. Others have enforced text messaging bans while driving, or cellphone bans for certain drivers in certain zones.

There is now a prevalent understanding that using handheld devices while driving is not a safe practice. Doing so requires the driver to take one hand off the steering wheel and to take their eyes off the road. As a result, slower reaction times to hazards and reduced driver control lead to an increased risk of accidents.

On the other hand, many people believe that driving whilst using a hands-free device is completely safe. After all, many hands-free systems are now built into vehicles. Using one enables the driver to keep their eyes on the road, and their hands on the steering wheel.

However, banning the use of hand-held cellphones while driving only addresses two of the main sources of driver distractions. Although the laws may be slow to catch up, there is significant evidence to highlight that hands-free devices are not as safe as the consensus would suggest.

The third type of driver distraction

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that almost 3,000 people were killed, with an additional 400,000 people injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver in 2018. Overall, it's estimated that around one quarter of motor vehicle accidents in the United States occur as a result of a distracted driver.

As the CDC explains, anything that takes a driver's attention away from driving can be considered a distraction. Banning the use of hand-held cellphones while driving is helping to reduce the risk of accidents from two of the main sources of distraction, visual and manual.

Visual distractions cause the driver to take their eyes off the road. Looking at a cell phone while driving is one example. Turning around to look at a passenger in the backseat of the car would also be considered a visual distraction.

Manual distractions can reduce the level of vehicle control that the driver has. They could also be called "physical distractions." In the case of using a hand-held cellphone, only one hand is available to control the vehicle. Using one hand to change the radio station in the car is another example of both a manual and visual distraction.

The third main type of driver distraction is mental, or cognitive distraction. It's possible that a driver could lose their focus from a simple auditory distraction, such as the phone ringing, or a loud sound inside or outside the vehicle. This becomes an even greater concern when it causes the driver to take their mental focus away from driving.

This concept of cognitive distraction is the primary reason why the safety of hands-free devices while driving needs to be seriously considered.

Cognitive distraction and the myth of multi-tasking

Although many people would like to believe that multitasking allows them to get more done in a shorter period of time, the concept is now becoming accepted as a myth. For tasks that require mental processing, the brain works more effectively by focusing on one task at a time.

This is not to say that doing more than one thing at a time is not possible. It may even be a little more efficient. However, it's important to consider what you're asking your brain to do. Some tasks require a sharper level of focus and attention than others. When a person is driving, any number of unexpected hazards could appear in an instant and put lives at risk. For this reason, driving is one of those cognitive tasks that, arguably, should receive 100% focus.

A growing body of evidence is demonstrating that of all the types of driver distraction, cognitive distraction may be having the biggest impact on driver performance. This could explain why hands-free devices are not as safe as originally thought.

Research on the safety of using hands-free devices while driving

Some studies may have concluded that hands-free devices are safer than hand-held devices while driving. They may even suggest that hands-free devices might keep drivers more engaged in certain situations. However, this doesn't mean they pose zero risk. Manual and visual distractions may have been reduced with hands-free driving, but what if the cognitive distraction is posing just as great a risk?

A study published in the Transportation Research Journal found that distracted drivers were more likely to focus on a small visual area right in front of them. This meant that they missed hazards in their wider peripheral vision.

The major reason that cognitive distraction may be such a problem when driving is due to the way the brain uses visual processing while having a conversation. This could be a conversation with a passenger in the car or a conversation via a hands-free device.

During a conversation, a driver may be visually imagining what they are talking about. They might be visually thinking about the person they are talking to on the phone or thinking about the answer to a question. Doing so competes with the mental processes required for fully attentive driving.

As a result, the driver might look at hazards while driving but fail to effectively "see" and respond quickly to them. It's possible that distracted drivers may not fully comprehend the hazard, or able to react as quickly as they would be able to if they were completely focused on driving. These are important reasons to reconsider the safety of hands-free devices and driving.

In conclusion

The concept of cognitive distraction can pose concerns for the safety of using hands-free devices while driving. Although these devices largely remove manual and visual distractions, they can still lead to reduced attentiveness while driving.

It could be argued that conversations with passengers within a car pose just as great a risk as a conversation via a hands-free device. Whilst a conversation with passengers in the car can also be considered a distraction, a person on the other end of a call who is not in the car is completely removed from the traffic, weather, and general driving environment. Passengers in the car may be able to more easily pause and adjust the conversation in line with what the driver is experiencing.

Hand-free devices may offer a safer option than hand-held devices, but this doesn't mean that they are risk-free. While most jurisdictions still allow the use of hands-free devices while driving, drivers will need to make their own judgement call around hands-free driving and safety.

Those who spend a significant amount of time driving or who lead a very busy lifestyle might consider it imperative to have hands-free conversations or to listen to an educational podcast while driving. Others may decide that these activities can wait until they're not behind the wheel.

[Find out more about safe driving in "6 Benefits of Driver's Education Courses" and "12 Tips For Practicing Safe Driving That All New Drivers Should Know"].