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Hand-Held Cell Phones vs. Hands-Free Cell Phones
Are Hands-Free Cell Phones Any
Less Distracting for Drivers?

by Randall Frost

Hands-Free Cell Phone DebateA national survey conducted by Omnibus in April 2003 found that nearly half of all Americans who own cellular phones sometimes use them while driving. And although three-quarters of those surveyed agreed that drivers should use a hands-free cell phone while on the road, most of those who use cell phones while driving said they never use a hands-free device.

Hands-free phones have been available since the mid-1990s. Most of these devices are connected by a wire to a regular cell phone, but a few wireless models use short-wave radio technology to exchange signals with the host phone. The first devices were equipped with large microphones that sat in front of the user's mouth, causing some people to complain that they felt self-conscious when using them. But ear pieces and microphones have since become smaller and less obtrusive.

Today there are three basic styles for hands-free phones: a headphone with a foam ear piece; a device that fits over the ear; and an "ear bud" that fits inside the ear. Headphones start at about $15; ear piece models range from $20 to $40; and ear buds may be priced anywhere from $20 for a low-end version to $150 for a wireless model.

But Are They Really Safer?

The hands-free gadgets still require some use of hands, and a few researchers feel the devices may actually put people at greater risk than hand-held ones. Some people will end up putting an earbud on or setting up a microphone while driving, for example, unless they habitually wear the device when they are in their vehicle. And people still have to dial or push a button to activate the phone. Voice-activated dialing systems are not yet bug-free, so drivers may become frustrated with them, which in turn becomes a safety issue.

But there are other safety issues besides ergonomics. In 2001, University of Utah researchers reported that students using cell phones -- hand-held or hands-free -- had slower reaction times than they did when not using the devices. The researchers found that drivers using either kind of cell phone missed twice as many signals as they did when not using the phones. They later estimated that talking on a hands-free phone while driving reduces the amount of visual information that can be processed by 50 percent.

University of Kansas psychology professor Paul Atchley, has also studied hands free technology. "Hands free devices are probably only safer under very limited circumstances. My own work uses hands-free devices, and we see reductions in attention in 20 year-old drivers that reduces their attention to the level we might see in an 85 year-old driver," he says.

Barry H. Kantowitz, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, also believes cell phones pose a serious hazard to safe driving. He says he doesn't hold out much hope for hands-free devices because they don't reduce the amount of concentration required to process a phone conversation.

Donald Redelmeier and Robert Tibshirani of the University of Toronto, authors of a frequently cited 1997 New England Journal of Medicine paper on cell phone distraction, reported that hands-free phones offered no large safety advantage over hand-held phones. They postulated that the main factor in a collision might be a driver's limitations in attention rather than his or her dexterity. They also thought that hands-free phones might provide drivers with a false sense of security that might cause them to expose themselves to greater risk than if they had a hand-held phone.

The Debate Goes On

But not everyone agrees. The University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research office analyzed five years of highway accident data and found that the most frequently reported sources of distraction for drivers involved in tow-away accidents were outside persons, objects or events (29.4%), followed by adjusting the radio, CD or cassette (11.4%), and then by other occupants in the vehicle (10.9%). Using a cell phone ranked far down their list with a frequency of 1.5%.

Other highway surveys have come up with similar rankings. In 2003, Delaware police reviewed about 1,300 accidents in their state and found only four in which they were distracted by a cell phone. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles has also ranked cell phones low on their list of distractions that cause accidents. However, a California Highway Patrol ranking placed cell phone use second only to adjusting a car stereo in contributing to highway accidents in Southern California.

But critics of the studies using highway accident data point out that distraction rankings are highly unreliable. They argue that to derive data from police reports or even more in-depth investigations can be notoriously inaccurate and incomplete.

There is also the problem that people will report some distractions but not others. And, of course, any given distraction can vary widely--tuning a radio can take one second, or it can take ten seconds. The same is true when using a cell phone. The ability of someone to deal with a distraction varies from individual to individual and from circumstance to circumstance.

Cell Phone Legislation

In November 2001, New York state enacted a new law that required motorists who use cell phones behind the wheel to use a hands-free adapter. The law made it illegal to drive while using a cell phone held next to the driver's ear, but speaker phones, voice-activated dialing and headsets were still OK. Since New York passed its ban on the use of hand-held cell phones, dozens of cities and counties in the U.S. have enacted similar laws. Approximately 40 states have considered or are considering cell phone legislation.

The nation's leading mobile telephone carrier, Verizon, has come out in favor of legislation by states to ban the use of hand-held phones while driving, while advocating the use of hands-free devices by drivers. But other wireless companies have been reluctant to follow suit.

The president of the Delaware chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, noting that the police study in his state had ranked cell phone use low among distractions contributing to highway accidents, told The News Journal (Wilmington, DE) in 2003, "Our members are for safety. . . I would say that probably most of us think that hands-free is a good idea, but we don't think it should be mandated."

Opponents of cell phone bans point to other distractions that such legislation does not address. California Assemblyman Jay La Suer pointed out to the San Francisco Chronicle that the ban then being considered in his state couldn't "create a hands-free device to eat a hamburger, or a French fry picker-upper, or a serving mechanism for coffee." Other critics have pointed out that there is nothing in the cell phone bans to stop drivers equipped with hands-free devices from doing paperwork, operating a laptop computer or eating a sandwich while driving and talking.

Overcoming Driver Resistance

Of the approximately 140 million cell phone subscribers in the U.S., only about 20 percent currently use hands-free devices. Apart from resistance to new legislation and skepticism about safety advantages, many drivers have objected to the hands-free technology because it requires that they have something in their ear or hanging on their head when driving.

Experts have estimated that the market for on-board communication products -- ranging from cell phones to Internet access devices -- could eventually reach $40 billion. Wireless phone companies have been willing to live with cell phone bans as long as hands-free devices are excepted -- in part because the bans create a market for hands-free technology, which many suspect may eventually be mandated.

Not about to lose a lucrative market, the wireless industry has responded to consumer resistance by attempting to make hands-free phones appear trendy by offering multi-color ear buds and interchangeable covers. A recent industry trade show reportedly included a fashion show with runway models wearing hands-free devices.

Still it would probably be unfair to characterize all of the wireless industry support for hands-free devices as profit-motivated. Says the University of Michigan's Barry Kantowitz, "It is easy for people to understand that taking their eyes off the road is risky. It is harder to understand that talking on any cell phone captures attention that is no longer available for processing on-road information.

"Hands-free phones have been recommended, especially by companies that sell phones, because it seems that talking on them is OK because drivers need not take their eyes off the road." But he adds, "Thinking about a conversation requires mental capacity needed for safe driving."

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