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Image: A driver talks on a cell phone while driving
Mike Derer  /  AP file
On July 1, California and Washington will join a handful of other states in banning drivers from talking on a cell phone — unless they use a hands-free device.
By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/2/2008 1:15:31 PM ET 2008-07-02T17:15:31

We all see it and many of us do it – chat on a cell phone as we drive. We know it’s distracting, but we convince ourselves we can handle it. Some people now use a hands-free device, believing it reduces the risk.

“I’m able to put two hands on the steering wheel and I’m able to concentrate on what’s going on around me,” says Romell Witherspoon of Renton, Wash.

For Nemesia Ramolete of Covington, Wash., hands-free means worry-free. “I don’t feel like I’m going to hurt anybody else on the road.”

Cell phone companies encourage going hands-free. Lawmakers in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and the District of Columbia have validated this idea by banning drivers from talking on a cell phone unless they use a hands-free device. California and Washington join the list on July 1st.

“If we have readily available technology that costs next to nothing that saves lives, why not use it?” asks California state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who sponsored the bill. By having two hands on the wheel, he says, the driver is better able to handle an emergency situation.

Video: NBC producer and daughter deliberate new phone law “There isn’t a study in the world that says you are safer clutching a cell phone to your ear than you are with both hands on the wheel,” Simitian says.

But some research shows that hands-free calls are just as distracting as calls made on a handheld phone.

“The evidence is mounting that the conversation itself is the risk, not holding the phone,” says Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “The research shows the risk of having an accident is about four times higher for drivers using cell phones, whether it’s handheld or hands-free.”

I think we’ve all seen someone weaving in their lane while on a cell phone. That’s because a driver is not paying full attention to the road.

“Some degree of awareness changes when you’re talking on the phone and driving, and I think we all know this,” says Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University. “Just listening to someone talk on the phone while you are driving is going to reduce the quality of your driving performance,” he says.

Distraction equals danger
University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer has studied driver distraction for years. He says talking on the phone causes what’s called “inattention blindness.” The driver looks but does not always see things that are there, such as pedestrians, stop signs, traffic signals, or other vehicles.

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Strayer uses simulators and sophisticated eye-tracking devices to see precisely where a test driver is looking. “They see about half of what they would normally see,” he says, “because talking on a cell phone has diverted attention from processing the information you need to be a safe driver.”

The difference is easily demonstrated with driving simulators. Professor Strayer tells test subjects to pull over when they see a rest area about eight miles up the road.

When no one is talking to the driver, every one pulls off at the right spot. If there’s a passenger talking, about 90 percent of the drivers are successful. In many cases, that’s because the passenger helps them remember to find the rest area. But when test subjects are talking on a cell phone 50 percent drive by the rest area. Why? “Because they simply didn’t see it,” he says.

Safety experts say speaking to someone next to you is different from talking to someone on the phone. Because the passenger is in the vehicle with you and can see what’s happening, the conversation tends to be less distracting.

“They function as an extra pair of eyes,” says Amit Almor, an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina. “That person can respond to changing road conditions.” If they see a situation that is potentially dangerous or requires more attention, they can stop the conversation or alert the driver. A person on a cell phone doesn’t know what’s happening and will just continue talking.

Another viewpoint
A recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California says fatalities drop when hands-free laws are enacted. The institute studied accident statistics from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and the District of Columbia and found traffic fatalities dropped significantly after the laws took effect.

Study author Jed Kolko says hands-free laws “reverse some of the dangerous effects of using mobile phones.” And he predicts California’s new law will reduce traffic fatalities by about 7 percent, saving 300 lives a year.

Kolko did not observe drivers, so he cannot say what drivers did differently. But he suspects the very act of passing a hands-free law changes behavior. “Laws can serve as a form of public education,” he says, “and some people will go beyond what the law requires.”

In other words, hands-free calls may not be any safer. The law works because it makes drivers more aware that talking on a wireless phone is dangerous. That may reduce the overall number of calls people make while on the road.

The bottom line
No matter how many studies are done, people will drive and talk on the phone. Some do it to get more work done. Others find it makes their commute more enjoyable.

People who want to believe driving while on the phone isn’t dangerous tend to point to other possible distractions: changing the radio, grabbing a beverage or reaching for a CD under the seat. These are all momentary distractions. A phone conversation can go on for several minutes or more. During that time, whether you want to admit it or not, you are distracted and not paying full attention to the road. That means you are more likely to have an accident that hurts or kills you or someone else.

When road conditions require your full attention – cars are changing lanes suddenly, children are playing nearby, there’s some sort of traffic hazard – you should not be on the phone.

For the record, after doing all the research for this story, I have vowed to change my behavior. I will no longer use my car as a mobile office. I will not initiate calls, even with my headset on. If it’s a critical call, I will pull over to talk. If not, I will let it go to voicemail. I know I’ll slip sometimes, but I’m really going to try – because I know I’ll be a safer driver.

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