Safe driving——Keep your mind on the road
Hands-free texting is more distracting to drivers than using a mobile phone
CARS, to paraphrase some in America's gun lobby, do not kill people.
People kill people.
And among the people more likely than others to kill people are those distracted by their use of mobile phones and other portable electronic devices while they are driving.
Actually holding a phone to your ear while driving is illegal in many places.
But not having both hands on the wheel is only part of the problem.
Another part, probably more serious, is the dissipation of attention involved.
If further evidence of this were needed, it has just been provided in a study published by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, in Washington,
DC. David Strayer and his colleagues at the University of Utah, the study's authors, looked at exactly how distracting various mental activities are to drivers.
In a world where cars are often fitted with hands-free electronic devices, what they found is worrying.
Dr Strayer divided 102 volunteers into three groups.
Each participant performed eight tasks under the scrutiny of his team and while wearing an electrode-laden hat to record what is known as their Event-Related Brain Potentials.
The eight tasks were: doing nothing; listening to the radio; listening to an audio book; conversing with a passenger; calling a friend using a hand-held phone; calling a friend using a hands-free phone; using speech to send a text message; and, as an example of a difficult task few people engage in behind the wheel, verifying a set of mathematical equations while memorising nouns interjected between the maths problems.
The first group of volunteers performed these tasks sitting at a computer.
The second sat in simulators resembling the interior of a car, and followed another car on a screen.
The third drove real cars.
Besides their ERPs, the volunteers' reaction times were assessed, their level of concentration was tested by studying their responses to lights shone in the periphery of their visual fields, and their subjective views of which tasks demanded most attention were recorded.
Dr Strayer then consolidated these various results into a single number that represented the overall mental distraction a task created.
Doing nothing provided a baseline value of 1.0 and juggling maths and word-memory provided an upper bound of 5.0.
As might be expected, listening to the radio or to a book were the least distracting activities.
Talking to a passenger and talking on the phone were intermediate.
The most distracting, at 3.06, was hands-free texting.
On a scale where 5.0 is the most distracted it is possible to be, that is worryingly high.
In attention to the road is not the only cause of traffic accidents, but it is an important one.
In America, various studies have suggested that it contributes to between a quarter and a half of accidents.
Those who think that hands-free texting is low on the list of potential driving hazards might therefore wish to think again.
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