Hands-free calling dangerous while driving, research shows

Drivers using hands-free devices to make calls can be just as distracted as someone fumbling with a phone, according to safety research.

Drivers using hands-free devices to make calls can be just as distracted as someone fumbling with a phone, according to safety research.

RCMP in Saskatchewan recently expressed great frustration with drivers who are distracted behind the wheel because of cell phone use.

A number of studies have looked into whether or not hands-free devices are a safer alternative. There are many systems available, from devices that sit on the ear, to hardware that can be attached to a dashboard. The common belief is that keeping your hands free for the steering wheel is safer.

However, research shows the phone conversation itself can be a significant — and dangerous — distraction.

Ray Klein, a psychology professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, has studied reviews of the available research.

"When people are using a hands-free phone they tend not to make that compensatory adjustment in speed," Klein told CBC News. "They go at least as fast if not faster than an individual simply carrying on no conversation on a phone.

CBC News reporter Dani Mario will be reporting live on Monday Jan. 30, from a driver training course — with her mobile phone in hand.

"So they're distracted. Their reaction times are slower," he added.

Klein explained that many drivers believe they can multi-task, but talking and driving at the same time is not like walking and chewing gum at the same time.

"As long as one activity involves uncertainty about what might be happening next, then you need ... some spare capacity to have the mental radar to be able to detect those signals and to be able to execute the responses you need in order to deal with them," Klein explained.

He said a good example would be having to swerve to avoid hitting a child who runs into the road.

Research has also examined eye movements of drivers and found that those involved in a phone call are not scanning the road as much as those focused solely on traffic.

Phone calls differ from chats with passengers

And, there is a distinction between talking on the phone and chatting with a passenger.

The in-person conversation is easier to manage because the passenger is in the same environment.

"When you're carrying out a conversation with someone on the phone you feel like you're being impolite if you don't answer their questions," Klein said. "But you would never worry about that if the person was in the care because you would realize that they would realize that you're doing a difficult task."

There is an exception on who can use a hands-free device while driving. In Saskatchewan, new drivers — for the first 27 months of having a licence — are not allowed to use any sort of mobile phone.

Saskatchewan, however, allows for hands-free devices.

An official from the government agency overseeing driving regulations and insurance said the problem is enforceability.

"The research shows that the distracting effects of hands free and hand held are similar," Kwei Quaye, the provincial Crown corporation's assistant vice-president of traffic safety services, told CBC News.

SGI's Kwei Quaye says education programs are used to remind drivers about the dangers of talking on a hands-free phone while driving. (CBC)
"The question becomes which one is easier to enforce and can we deal with the other one in some other ways? And we deal with the other one, as well as other types of distraction, by doing education."

SGI also recommends that drivers pull over to the side of the road, safely, to make phone calls.

The psychology professor, however, is not impressed.

Law should be changed

"Law enforcement officials, or maybe the law makers in this case, should be embarrassed," Klein said about how hands-free devices can be used. "It's so illogical to have that system."

Klein believes drivers should be banned from making phone calls, however he concedes it would be a tough sell for politicians.

According to the research, whether or not one is on a hands-free phone or using a regular cell phone, the risk of injury or property damage from a crash goes up 400 per cent when a driver is on the phone.

With files from CBC's Geoff Leo