Hands free phones are just as distracting

Why Hands Free Phones Aren’t Safer For Drivers

Hands free phones aren’t any safer for drivers than hand held phones according to research from Carnegie Mellon University.

Cars are becoming more and more connected to the web with dashboard screens that essentially act as a built in smartphone with many of the features seen in a typical computer. Auto manufacturers say they’re providing what the customer wants but, while cars are being made safer in other areas, the addition of these web connected devices are creating the potential for even more distracted drivers on the road. The manufacturers are also pushing the idea that hands free phones and texting are safer than using handheld devices but the scientific evidence doesn’t back that up.

In 2008, the Carnegie Mellon Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging published a study that used brain imaging to see what actually goes on in the brain while a driver is engaged in a phone conversation.

To conduct the study, 29 volunteer subjects “drove” over a simulated driving course while inside an MRI brain scanner. The subjects had to maintain speed while steering along a winding course. For the first test, the test subjects drove the course without any interruptions. In the second test, the subjects had to drive the course while listening to and answering true or false questions.

While driving without interruptions, the area of the brain that showed the greatest activity was the area responsible for “spatial awareness”; the area of the brain most associated with the complex task of safely steering a car

When the subjects had to listen and answer questions while driving, the activity in the brain’s spatial awareness area was reduced by 37 percent and the area of the brain associated with language comprehension showed the greatest activity.

In spite of all the modern day hubbub about the ability to multitask, the results of the study convinced the researchers that the brain itself isn’t capable of multitasking. The brain has to ignore other demands in order to do one task effectively.

If someone is using a phone while driving, whether it be a handheld or hands free phone, the brain is concentrating on the content of the call, not on the task of driving. When activity in the area of the brain responsible for steering a car and watching the road is reduced, it can be easy to miss a potentially hazardous situation ahead and that can lead to tragedy.

Other, more recent studies have shown that voice activated phone and texting systems such as Apple’s Siri or Google’s voice activated search can be even more distracting than using a hand held phone because of the frustrations experienced when the system fails to understand your requests. Studies also show that the distractions of smartphone notifications, even when they aren’t answered, can lead to driving mistakes.

The best advice for drivers who want to complete their trip safely is to turn off the phone while driving and, if a call must be made, pull off of the road.

Read more: Carnegie Mellon Study Shows Just Listening To Cell Phones Significantly Impairs Drivers

Cell phone notifications

Cell Phone Notifications Are A Distraction Too

We all know that talking on a cell phone or reading and sending text messages while driving is a major distraction for drivers but it turns out that just receiving notifications are distracting too, even if the phone calls or texts aren’t answered or read.

This finding was described in a study conducted by researchers at Florida State University (FSU) and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.

To conduct their study, the FSU researchers had volunteers participate in a computerized exercise to determine their ability to concentrate and complete assigned tasks. Once that test had been completed and the results recorded, the volunteers were given the test again. In the second test, the volunteers were randomly assigned to three groups; no notifications, call, or text.

During the second exercise, the researchers called or sent text messages to the assigned volunteers. The volunteers weren’t aware that the calls and texts were part of the study or that the notifications were generated by the researchers.

The results showed that, even though they didn’t respond to the calls or texts, those volunteers who heard or felt the vibrations from the call or text notifications made more mistakes on their computerized tasks than those who didn’t receive any notifications. The results showed that, among those who received a notification, their chances of making a mistake were three times greater than those who didn’t receive any notifications.

According to the researchers, the study shows that the notifications were enough to distract an individual from concentrating on the task at hand. Comparing their data to other studies on the subject, the researchers concluded that just receiving notifications can be as distracting as actually answering the phone or a text.

While not tied specifically to driving, the study shows that drivers, especially those who may find themselves in situations where their concentration is needed most (construction zones, narrow roads with heavy traffic, etc.), could possibly be distracted enough by phone notifications to make a critical mistake on the road.

For drivers, the best bet is to turn the cell phone off while driving.

Read more: Cell phone alerts may be driving you to distraction

New car safety technology

My Car Does What Offers Info On New Car Safety Technology

For those with a new car or those considering the purchase of a new car, My Car Does What.org offers an explanation of new car safety technologies available in new vehicles, including some that buyers may not have been aware were available.

Funded by the Toyota Safety Research and Education Program Settlement the site was developed by the National Safety Council and the University of Iowa.  With new car safety technologies entering the market at a rapid pace and older technologies being updated, the website is designed to inform vehicle owners about the different technologies and teach drivers how to use them.

A lot of new car safety technology is getting a lot of press such as crash avoidance and lane departure systems but some new safety systems may be surprising to drivers including:

  • Terrain management – adjusts speed and suspension systems when moving from paved to unpaved roads.
  • Hill descent assist – aids drivers balance the need between braking and speed depending on the degree of the downhill grade.
  • Hill start assist – When stopped facing uphill, keeps the car from rolling back by holding the brake until the gas pedal is activated.
  • Health and workload monitoring – Monitors a driver’s vital signs and can alter car functions during a health emergency.
  • Cornering braking control – Adjusts the brakes independently to keep the car on the road if a driver is approaching a sharp curve or corner too fast.

Other explanations of new and updated car safety systems include:

  • Anti-lock braking
  • Forward collision warning
  • Adaptive and active suspension
  • Adaptive headlights
  • Automatic emergency braking
  • Electronic braking assistance
  • Obstacle detection
  • Pedestrian detection
  • High speed alert
  • Adaptive headlights
  • Night vision
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Tire pressure monitoring
  • Road surface warning
  • Back-up cameras
  • Lane departure warning

The actual list of features is much longer and the website includes both written explanations and videos on each car safety system. It also includes information on auto safety research.

Read more: My Car Does What.org

Driving while dehydrated

Driving Dehydrated And Without Rest Like Driving Drunk

Two studies from researchers in Great Britain show that driving while dehydrated and driving too long without a break on long trips can be dangerous.

The first study conducted by researchers at Loughborough University in England looked at the effects dehydration had on drivers. The researchers conducted a two-day experiment to compare driving abilities when drivers were hydrated and dehydrated. On the first day subjects who were properly hydrated were observed while driving on a simulated driving course. According to the researchers, the hydrated drivers had 47 driving incidents. On the second day, when the subjects were dehydrated, the number of incidents more than doubled to 101 incidents.

According to the researchers, the number of driving incidents recorded by those subjects that were dehydrated were equivalent to someone operating a vehicle with a blood alcohol content of 0.08, the legal limit in both the UK and the US. The incidents recorded included, lane weaving, braking late, and not stopping at the stop line at intersections.

According to WebMD.com. some of the symptoms of dehydration can include:

  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Palpitations (feeling that the heart is jumping or pounding)
  • Confusion
  • Sluggishness
  • Fainting

All symptoms similar to alcohol intoxication.

Another poll conducted by IAM, a British highway safety organization, shows that drivers tend to drive too far between breaks on long trips. According to the drivers polled, 65 percent didn’t stop for breaks on long trips because they didn’t feel they needed to. Seventy- nine percent of the drivers polled said they wouldn’t stop unless there was a rest stop conveniently located on the highway.

The stresses of dealing with highway traffic along with what’s known as “highway hypnosis” can cause a driver to become fatigued and lose his or her focus on the whole driving picture. Without those refreshing breaks, fatigue can easily set in and, as shown by the research mentioned above, becoming dehydrated can lead to driver errors.

Whether they feel the need or not, drivers should stop at least every two hours or 100 miles to rest and refresh themselves. stopping for a short break to relax and have a drink can help a driver avoid fatigue and the problems caused by dehydration.

Drinking caffeinated drinks are fine if you want to fight off fatigue but caffeine has a diuretic effect that causes the body to lose fluids. To make the most of your rest breaks, alternate drinks between caffeinated drinks such as coffee or cola and non-caffeinated drinks such as water or fruit juice. Avoid highly caffeinated “energy drinks” at all costs.

Read more: Dehydrated drivers make the same number of mistakes as drink drivers

Two-thirds of drivers won’t take rest breaks on any long journey, IAM finds   

Older drivers aided by technology

Older Drivers Can Be Aided By Technology

When it comes to older drivers, stereotypes aren’t necessarily true. Years ago, safety experts predicted a traffic nightmare as baby boomers reached old age but that hasn’t turned out to be the case. In fact, traffic data from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety shows that traffic deaths among drivers 70 and older have been on a steady decline since the high point in 1997.

There are fewer drivers over the age of 70 and they tend to drive fewer miles. Safety experts feel that many older drivers “self regulate”; that is they tend to restrict driving to less busy times of the day and they avoid driving at night. Another reason for the decline in deaths of older drivers is that older drivers tend to be healthier and have better medical care than drivers in the past.

It’s impossible to tell at what age a driver is too old to drive. It depends on the individual driver and everyone ages at a different rate. A new study published recently tracked 1000 people born in 1972-73. Using a range of biomarkers, they found that the biological age of the one-thousand 38 year olds ranged from 30 to 60 years apart. Some were aging rapidly while others aged very slowly.

Still, it’s undeniable that most people will reach an age when they’ll no longer be able to drive and many families will face the difficult decision of when to take away the keys.

However, for those drivers reaching their 70’s and still driving safely, technology has the answer to help them to continue to drive safely and, hopefully, reduce the fears that any family members may have. If they can afford it, a new car with the following features can help to keep them and any other driver, regardless of their age, safer on the road. While these packages may cost a bit more, their price may be offset by a reduction in insurance costs.

  • Collision Avoidance – Collision avoidance technology uses a combination of either radar, lasers, and cameras to keep an eye on vehicles and pedestrians ahead. Those systems work together to warn a drivers if they’re approaching too closely to another vehicle or object. If the driver doesn’t heed the warnings, the system will apply the brakes and stop the car.
  • Lane Departure Warning and Prevention – This system warns a driver if the vehicle is drifting out of the lane and uses the dynamic braking system to steer the car back into the lane if the driver doesn’t take action.
  • Adaptive Headlights – This system turns the headlights in the direction of the wheels to illuminate the road more clearly on curves.
  • Blind Spot Detection – This system uses sensors to detect other vehicles in a driver’s blind spot to warn a driver who’s about to move into another lane or who may be drifting over the line. These systems can either warn the driver or work together with the lane departure system to prevent a driver from moving over.

To find a list of vehicle manufacturers who offer these technologies, visit: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety – Crash avoidance features by make and model