Think Hands-Free Frees Your Mind? Think Again

So everyone thought all we had to do to make driving while talking on a cell phone safer was to remove our hands.  Big joke.

It's our minds that we have to remove when we're doing that.  I always wondered why the big deal about hands-free cell phones when it's the talking that's distracting, not the damn holding of the phone.  And it appears it's not limited to calls, but sending texts with Apple Siri or Google Now smart phone personal assistants.  Even just speaking into your phone to give a command slices our attention in half.

Now a study has finally found that it takes up to 27 seconds to regain full attention after issuing voice commands, according to newswise.com.  University of Utah researchers discovered this in a pair of new studies for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

I mean, it makes sense.  When I'm talking to someone -- whether in person or on a cell -- I'm totally in the conversation.  I don't notice if a car is about to sideswipe -- or, as happened today, with my teen in the car, a pick-up truck totally unexpectedly shooting out of his lane to cut in front of me -- and gives me the finger when I honk.

If I hadn't been paying attention, I'd probably be writing this in the ER.   Which is not to say that I don't daydream while listening to the radio.  But I try to be fully present when I'm driving.  (Especially because I tend to speed, but that's another blog).

Twenty-seven seconds.  That's almost half a minute.  Try to hold your breath that long.  See?  I told you.

One of the studies showed that it is highly distracting to use hands-free voice commands to dial phone numbers, call contacts, change music and send texts with Microsoft Cortana, Apple Siri and Google Now smartphone personal assistants, though Google Now was a bit less distracting than the others.

The other study examined voice-dialing, voice-contact calling and music selection using in-vehicle information or “infotainment” systems in 10 model-year 2015 vehicles. Three were rated as moderately distracting, six as highly distracting and the system in the 2015 Mazda 6 as very highly distracting.

“Just because these systems are in the car doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to use them while you are driving,” says University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer, senior author of the two new studies, at newswise.com. “They are very distracting, very error-prone and very frustrating to use. Far too many people are dying because of distraction on the roadway, and putting another source of distraction at the fingertips of drivers is not a good idea."

So the next time you see someone texting or talking on the phone excitedly, maybe remind them to cut it out.  Then drive as fast as you can away.

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