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The cognitive dangers of hands-free calling while driving

We all know that driving while distracted is dangerous. When we think about distracted driving behavior, we usually think about activities that take our eyes off the road or our hands off the wheel. Therefore, two of the most commonly discussed distracted driving behaviors are texting and hand-held phone calls while driving.

In recent years, there have been state and nation-wide campaigns to curtail these behaviors. Texas recently passed a law banning any form of electronic messaging while driving. However, throughout this push to reduce distracted driving, hands-free calling has often been touted as a safe alternative to other communication methods. In actuality, this type of behavior poses significant safety risks. In today’s post, we discuss what makes hands-free calling so dangerous:

Response time in critical scenarios

Imagine you and your colleague are driving down the freeway, discussing a serious problem at work. The topic is concerning to both of you, and you’re both invested in the conversation. Suddenly, a semi-truck swerves into your lane—narrowly missing your car. In this moment, both you and your colleague see the incident and instinctively pause the conversation—allowing you to focus your attention on avoiding an accident.

Now imagine the same situation, only this time, you’re talking to your colleague on the phone. In this case, your colleague is blind to your dangerous situation on the road. This makes you less likely to interrupt the conversation when you need to divert attention to driving. In addition, if your colleague senses you’re contributing less to the conversation, they’ll be more likely to compensate by contributing more—thus distracting you further at a moment when you need to concentrate of preventing a collision.

Drivers who talk on the phone as little as 50 minutes a month are five times more likely to get into an accident than other drivers. It’s important to remember that our brains can’t focus on two tasks at once. When driving and conversation compete for cognitive real estate, it can be a recipe for disaster.

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