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Hands-free cellphones may not be safer

Ah, unintended consequences. We sometimes like to think that if there is a problem, there must be a solution. And sometimes we find that our solutions may, in the end, become worse than the problem that they were engineered to solve. Distracted driving is a major problem. Distraction and inattention while driving the winding and congested roads of Hawaii can make for deadly car accidents.

The use of cellphones is convenient and addictive, so it is unlikely that their use can ever be completely stopped. So the quest has become to find a safer way to use a cellphone while driving a motor vehicle. We hope technology will provide our salvation from this problem, but some technology may not always be able to provide a viable solution.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) has released a study this week that finds that hands-free cell phones in a vehicle may not be significantly safer than using hand-held phone. The study also notes that use of "hands-free devices that translate speech into text is the most distracting of all."

It is not really the technology, but how our brains work, that is the problem. As the brain concentrates on a problem, it develops "inattention blindness" where drivers appear to be staring straight ahead, but they do not recognize threats and they fail to properly react.

The great increase in the use of hands-free, voice-activated technologies in cars could provide a deceptive message to drivers that use of these tools is "safer" and presents less of a risk than other activities. In fact, much "hands-free" activity is as distracting as using hand-held devices.

As distraction sources increase, drivers need to actively focus their attention on the only important activity they should be engage in, that being the safe operation of their vehicle.

Source: Honolulu Star Advertiser, "Hands-free technology still distracting for drivers, study finds," Joan Lowy, Associated Press, June 12, 2013

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