Spark

Video: Even with hands-free devices, you're still a distracted driver

Connected cars and hands-free devices cause excessive "cognitive workload" in drivers.
Transportation expert Deborah Hersman says connected cars and hands-free devices cause excessive "cognitive workload" in drivers. 0:55
Listen10:35

If you're a typical driver in Canada, this may be what you do each time you get behind the wheel: fasten your seatbelt, and click your smartphone into some sort of holder on the dashboard or windshield.

Then you fire up a navigation app, type in the address, and away you go. Free from distraction, right?

Wrong.

Just because you've stopped texting while driving -- and you have, right? -- it doesn't mean your device is no longer a distraction. In fact, it may be more of a distraction.

In the first half of this year, traffic-related fatalities in the US went up 10 per cent. That's the biggest spike in 50 years, and evidence in Canada suggests car fatalities are also on the rise after years of decline.

And it's not just that 90 per cent of drivers use apps while they're driving. It's what apps they're using: Netflix and YouTube are in the top ten, according to a study where drivers' app use was recorded.

Debbie Hersman, the CEO of the US National Safety Council, and a three-term chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, says driving "hands free" doesn't address the problem.

"If it were an issue of your hands, we'd have banned the stick shift years ago," she says. Rather, she says, it's cognitive overload: all the work your brain has to do while you're supposed to be focused on driving.

And when your smartphone or connected car makes it easier to do things hands-free, it means your brain is working even harder to concentrate on driving, because it's also looking at driving directions, switching songs, Snapchatting, and, apparently, watching Jessica Jones on Netflix.

Worse, more and more cars now come with semi-autonomous features, like warnings when you start to drift out of a lane, or adaptive cruise control, which keeps your car a safe distance behind the one in front. Some cars will even parallel park for you.

While these technologies are undoubtedly helpful, they can also create a false sense of security, Debbie says.

Eventually, all cars will be fully autonomous, she believes, and the number of people who die in automobile-related crashes annually in the US -- currently around 40,000 -- will drop to zero.

"Autonomous cars don't drive drunk. They don't get fatigued," she points out.

But she admits it's going to be a long, bumpy road before we get there. So in the meantime, she suggests limiting what your phone can do when you're driving to, say, only navigating. "Nobody wants to go back to paper maps," she says. (With the exception perhaps of Spark Senior Producer Michelle Parise.)

Debbie says she now often puts her phone in the trunk of her car so she can't hear any of the notifications it makes, which we feel compelled to check. When she first started doing that, she adds, she felt like "the only sober person in a room full of drinkers."

That, in itself, is a sobering thought.

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