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The great handsfree debate

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Scientific research somehow manages to prove common sense. For instance, research shows that if you give people too many choices, their reaction time in making a choice is much slower. That is one of the main reasons why many states have laws requiring drivers to “use “hands-free” devices when they talk on a cell phone and operate a car. The theory is, a driver will have slower reaction time – and thus be potentially dangerous – holding a phone and operating a car at the same time. Research by a Rice University professor suggests those new laws may not be effective. Kinesiologist Bruce Etnyre’s tests suggest that neither device should be used by someone while operating a car.

When his subjects had to split their attention between four different lights, their reaction time was noticeably diminished. Similarly, drivers using either type of cell phone are necessarily splitting their attention between their phone conversation and their driving, and that, according to Etnyre, is what will slow their reaction time. “Whether the driver’s hands are on the wheel or free doesn’t make a difference in how fast they can react to something on the road,” Etnyre says. “It’s not necessarily a matter of physically controlling the car while holding the phone. It’s the fact that they have to switch their attention between driving the car and listening and talking with someone.

Oh I agree… since I don’t drive, and have always been scared of the crazy drivers, you should see my white knuckles when I am in the passenger seat and the driver is chatting on the phone. This problem is especially severe when the driver happens to be a cabbie. Or a so called master/mistress of the Universe driving a BMW down to San Jose, and try and attend conference calls while driving. I think just like drunk-driving is illegal, they should simply ban driving-while-talking and penalize people for putting other people’s life at risk.

4 Responses to “The great handsfree debate”

  1. What we need is a change in telephone etiquette, so that communicants understand that someone talking on a cellphone may need to pause the conversation at unpredictable times in order to pursue the task at hand. If I was to say “shut up” to someone, they would take that badly. If I’m driving and come to an intersection that requires my full attention, it’s not sufficient for me to stop talking. I need the other person to stop talking as well.

    I’ve blogged on this subject before; see URL.

  2. Hi Om, I have observed my own talking/driving at length (guess that means ANOTHER process was also happening) and I have found that my attention on the road is actually split such that driving while holding a handset is the absolute worst – I would guess only 50% of my brain is driving. But driving with a headset is significantly better – I would say that 75% of my attention is on the driving. Then of course, with no phone at all, 100% is on the driving. That oversimplification doesn’t take into account wandering thoughts which tend to pull the focus off the driving though. Have you ever been somewhere in your car and realized that you didn’t remember the past mile because you were so lost in your thoughts?

    Anyway, my point is that I agree/disagree with the research. I would say that there is a continuum of attention splitting from full attention to partial attention (headset) to half attention (handset). Just my 2 cents.