Hands-free calling not risk-free for drivers

A graphic shows car wrecks in the shape of the bluetooth symbol. Bluetooth is not necessarily safe for cars. (Graphic by Chuck Dearden)

Bluetooth-integrated automobiles are more present than ever, but studies show hands-free calling and texting can be dangerous.

Major car manufacturers offer Bluetooth-integrated automobiles in the hopes of making phone calls safer while driving, according to the Bluetooth website. But hands-free calling and texting still aren’t ideal even if they’re safer, according to BYU professor of psychology and neuroscience Steven Luke.

“It’s obviously a lot safer than looking down at your phone,” Luke said. “But it’s a misconception to believe that it’s completely safe.”

One of the more recent AAA studies measured the heart rates, workload and reaction times of drivers as they used voice-automated features to do things like start the radio and make phone calls. Siri-based interactions were found to be one of the worst distractions for drivers.

“If you try to divide your attention between two or more tasks, you’re going to perform more poorly,” Luke said in regards to the study. “If you’re having a conversation with somebody on the phone, you have fewer resources to pay attention to what’s in front of you.”

Distracted driving is an issue the Provo Police Department faces frequently, according to Traffic Sergeant Drew Hubbard. He feels like people in general have a hard time putting technology to the side.

“We live in a day and age where we want information and we want it now,” Hubbard said. “Whether it’s searching Google, texting, tweeting or getting a phone call — everyone is so distracted. Sometimes we look like a bunch of zombies.”

Hubbard said he could see the advantages of Bluetooth, but agreed that speaking to Siri, taking a call and voicing a text message are distracting. He suggested drivers silence their devices and wait until they’ve pulled over and stopped to use their phones.

BYU graduate student Emily Horn owns a Honda Civic with integrated Bluetooth technology. She said she sometimes uses the hands-free calling feature when driving and that it has disadvantages when conversing on the road.

“It feels different from having a passenger in the car because the passenger is aware of the traffic,” Horn said. “Their cues influence my driving because they’re paying some degree of attention.”

Part of the problem is when drivers believe they’re good at multitasking, according to Luke. He said technology has likely contributed to this misconception.

“There’s no such thing as a good multitasker,” Luke said. “Every time you are trying to do more than one thing at once, your performance is going to suffer.”

Hubbard said he hopes drivers will become more conscious of technological distractions while driving, but suggested it often takes a bad experience before people, especially students, begin to take the issue seriously.

“Until they’ve experienced something, they think it’s not going to happen to them,” Hubbard said. “Until they’ve seen the hurt person or the dead child, they’re not going to really understand the importance of it.”

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