Chatting Hands-Free? You're Already a Distracted Driver, Says Study

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

They already came for your cell phone, but a new study on distracted driving could be the spark legislators are looking for to take away your hands-free calling.

Keeping your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road means nothing if your brain is busy visualizing something else, say researchers at Britain’s University of Sussex. Their study, published in the journal Transportation Research, showed that hands-free motorists can miss seeing objects right in front of them, especially when they’re not just pretending to listen to the other person.

Having a conversation while driving creates an epic battle inside the brain, with reality and imagination duking it out for dominance, the study found.

When conversation forces a driver to visualize something, that person can use far more of the brain’s visual processing abilities than scientists previously thought. That means it doesn’t matter whether a driver is holding a phone or talking over Bluetooth when it comes to paying attention. What your eyes see can be cancelled out by your thoughts, then replaced with something else.

“Hands-free can be equally distracting because conversations cause the driver to visually imagine what they’re talking about,” said Dr. Graham Hole, the university’s senior lecturer in psychology, in a media release.

“This visual imagery competes for processing resources with what the driver sees in front of them on the road … The person at the other end of the phone might ask ‘where did you leave the blue file?’, causing the driver to mentally search a remembered room. The driver may also simply imagine the facial expression of the person they’re talking to.”

The study based its findings on tests subjects’ eye movements during two video-based scenarios.

Hole said most hand-held phone bans stemmed from concerns about vehicle control, with many legislators worried about people driving with one hand on the wheel. Take the phone away, and not much changes, he said. Conversations lead to “visual tunneling” — focusing on a small area directly in front of you, with no glancing around.

“All of the distracted participants were slower to respond to hazards, detected fewer hazards and made more ‘looked but failed to see’ errors, meaning their eyes focused on a hazard but they didn’t actually see it,” he said. “These impairments were worse for the participants who were distracted by imagery-inducing statements.”

Now, you’re probably thinking: what about those passengers that just won’t shut up? Are carpool lanes going to be outlawed due to distracted driving concerns? Will we be forced to ride with Hitler?

In-person convos aren’t as dangerous, Hole said, because passengers tend to pipe down when a dangerous situation crops up. They also use “non-verbal cues” when speaking to someone in person, meaning Larry Lawmaker isn’t likely to take away your passenger’s right to discuss exactly what went wrong in the relationship.

[Image: bark/ Flickr]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • JimC2 JimC2 on Jun 15, 2016

    Maybe we should just put our hazard lights on anytime we're talking on the phone... rain or shine. /sarcasm

  • Redav Redav on Jun 15, 2016

    Those conclusions are the same as has been reported for years.

  • VoGhost Key phrase: "The EV market has grown." Yup, EV sales are up yet again, contrary to what nearly every article on the topic has been claiming. It's almost as if the press gets 30% of ad revenues from oil companies and legacy ICE OEMs.
  • Leonard Ostrander Daniel J, you are making the assertion. It's up to you to produce the evidence.
  • VoGhost I remember all those years when the brilliant TTAC commenters told me over and over how easy it was for legacy automakers to switch to making EVs, and that Tesla was due to be crushed by them in just a few months.
  • D "smaller vehicles" - sorry, that's way too much common sense! Americans won't go along because clever marketing convinced us our egos need big@ss trucks, which give auto manufacturers the profit margin they want, and everybody feels vulnerable now unless they too have a huge vehicle. Lower speed limits could help, but no politician wants to push that losing policy. We'll just go on building more lanes and driving faster and faster behind our vehicle's tinted privacy glass. Visions of Slim Pickens riding a big black jacked up truck out of a B-52.
  • NotMyCircusNotMyMonkeys dudes off the rails on drugs and full of hate and retribution. so is musky.
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