I was on vacation in Scotland recently with some friends and we piled into a van for a road trip from Edinburgh to Loch Lomond. One of my friends — a well-known theatre producer in London — got behind the wheel and put on her Bluetooth hands-free mobile phone earpiece, so that she could conduct some business calls along the way.
I protested that phoning while driving was as bad as climbing behind the wheel with a gin and tonic, but I was shouted down by my mates. It’s just talking, and everyone talks while driving.
I thought everyone knew that talking on the phone is as bad, maybe worse, than drunk driving. But it turns out I’m in a minority — while everyone knows that texting while driving leads to accidents, most people believe that talking on a hands-free mobile phone device is no different than chatting to the person next to you in the shotgun seat.
Most people, however, are wrong.
The available studies so far suggest that talking on the phone while driving, even hands-free, is as bad or worse than driving drunk. Indeed, hands-free talking may be worse than drunk-driving precisely because so many people are lulled into thinking it’s safer.
Here’s the research:
- The benchmark study comes from the University of Utah in 2006. A test of 41 adults found that driving while intoxicated was actually less dangerous than driving while talking on a hand-held phone or a hands-free phone. The study found non difference between performance in the hand-held and hands-free conditions, but mobile phone users had more crashes than drunk drivers. That was a small study but its results have been repeated.
- This year, a study at Touro University of 80 drivers found that impairment between drunk drivers and hands-free mobile phone drivers was roughly equal.
- In real life, 24% of all car crashes involve mobile phone conversations, according to the National Safety Council.
- The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration believes that the research shows that talking on a phone is more risky than talking to a passenger in the car with you.
- And, if you’re still not convinced, the MythBusters crew put the hands-free myth to the test and found that Adam, who trying to conduct a conversation over the phone, did worse on a driving course than Kari, who drove drunk.
It’s not clear why talking on a hands-free is worse than chatting with a passenger. Theories floated so far suggest that talking to a person remotely requires greater cognitive effort than talking to a person sitting next to you. (Think about how much more effort you have to put into a mobile phone conversation than a face to face one.) Also, the person next to you can respond to your driving cues and alter the workload of the conversation based on the difficulty of driving conditions — the person on the other end of the mobile phone can’t help you with any of that.
My friend didn’t crash our van in Scotland, luckily. She did, however, take directions from a person using a GPS app on a mobile phone in the passenger seat — and she blew right through a “Dead End” sign within five minutes of setting off, forcing her into an embarrassing three-point turn at the end of a cul-de-sac.
Perhaps her performance would have been better if she had been drinking and driving alone.