Hands-Free Won't Cut It

Fawn Johnson

Anyone who has had a cell-phone fight with their spouse on their morning commute knows that talking while driving distracts you. So does checking on your kid in the back seat or listening to the radio or a book on tape.

Interacting on the Web goes a level further in terms of distraction, according to a new study by AAA. Things like voice-activated texting or reading of e-mails while driving are even more dangerous than just talking on your phone. Hands-free devices are supposed to allow you to navigate the intricacies of a computer without difficulty, but we all know it doesn't work that way in the real world. (Try asking Siri to find Oyamel restaurant in Washington D.C. and see how well you do.)

AAA is to be commended for scientifically measuring this intuitively obvious phenomenon to bring some heft to this conversation. Using controlled experiments with volunteers and driving simulators, AAA found that there are different levels of cognitive distraction based on the "other" activity performed while driving. Listening the radio is a minimal "category one" level of distraction. Talking on a cell phone, either hands-free or hand-held, is a "category two" moderate level of distraction. Listening and responding to voice-activated email or texts brings a "category three" level of distraction--in other words, extremely dangerous.

Is it possible to stop people from using their smart phones while driving? How? Are there developments within smart phones--like a 'no text' app--that could lessen the risk? Are hands-free devices even worth it? Can the problem be handled through tough laws, like seatbelt laws? Or do we need to just shame people (me included) into driving responsibly? Is there some kind of technological development that could fix this problem?