Behind The Wheel, Hands-Free Devices Are Still Distracting

Nov 3, 2015

A new study shows that drivers are still distracted by hands-free devices.
Credit Robert Couse-Baker / Flickr

Hands-free systems, supposedly the answer to safe texting and calling in the car, are still distracting us -- even after we're done using them.

Researchers with AAA found that drivers experienced mental distractions, some for up to 27 seconds, after a call is completed or a text is dictated. 

Researchers watched study volunteers' physical behavior using cameras mounted in the car and asked what they were thinking after using the hands-free system, said Chelsea Pompeani, public affairs director of AAA Central.

“Say you’re at a stoplight and you do send a text message and you put your phone down. Well, this research shows that almost 30 seconds after you do that, you’re still thinking about what you just sent,” Pompeani said.

Types of distractions were ranked from one to five depending on the level of interference. A level one distraction may be listening to the radio, while a level five distraction is posting on social media.

Moving at 25 miles per hour, drivers used a variety of hands-free devices, from Siri on the iPhone to the Bluetooth systems that come installed in cars. Even when using what researchers have deemed minimally distracting systems, drivers were impaired for more than 15 seconds after completing the task.

Systems in six cars were tested; the Chevy Equinox ranked lowest on the scale, with a score of 2.4. Pompeani said Chevy’s low rating is likely due to its lack of “bells and whistles.”

“When you get into your car, your phone automatically connects to your system, and then the texts start appearing on the screen in front of you and that’s when it gets dangerous,” she said. "The systems that performed best generally had fewer errors, required less time on task and were relatively easy to use.”

Pompeani said the best way to stay focused on the road is to forget about outside communications altogether.

“As soon as you get in the car, there’s no need for your phone. Either turn it off, put it on silent and stick it in the glove compartment where you’re not going to see or hear it," she said. 

But even without the electronic devices, is it possible to be 100 percent focused behind the wheel?

“It’s hard nowadays, especially when cars are coming out with more and more programmed in them ... You can’t really go backwards. You just need to make sure that you’re focused, and you’re just worried about your own driving.”