Perspective | Using hands-free cellphones when you drive is not as safe as you think

“I can’t talk while you’re driving,” I said.

He offered the typical response. “It’s okay, it’s hands-free.”

I hesitated. Principles were principles, no matter how tempting the circumstances. “I’m sorry, I can’t. Let’s talk later. When you’re not driving.” I cut off his objections and hung up.

He did call back later when he wasn’t driving, and I apologized again and tried to explain my reasoning, and we eventually did meet for a drink. But my abrupt action had created a “thing” between us. Given his lingering irritation over what he’d experienced as my rudeness, our date was doomed. I mourned the loss of our future.

But I’d do the same again. As a public health academic, I try to follow the evidence. In the case of cellphones and driving, the evidence is unequivocal. Hands-free does not mean risk-free. It doesn’t even mean less risky than handheld. The body of research shows that both types of cellphone conversation lead to major driving deficits.

Before the pandemic, I found myself hanging up like that with some frequency. Since last March, when people began staying home more and driving less, I have relished not having to engage in these curt exchanges.

The following year, the National Safety Council, a private group, warned in a major report on “the distracted brain” that driving bans targeting only handheld phones “give the false impression that using a hands-free phone is safe.” Citing simulation research, the report noted that drivers using hands-free phones looked less at traffic lights, car mirrors, dashboard instruments and peripheral areas than non-phone users, and were slower to brake.

To date, no states have followed the science to its logical end and banned hands-free phone use while driving. Undoubtedly, such bans would be wildly unpopular and politically untenable, not to mention difficult to enforce.

To many people, it feels counterintuitive that hands-free conversations represent more of a danger than, say, chatting with someone in the passenger seat. They assume the only serious risk of phone use in the car is the need to hold the device. But as the research indicates, that assumption is false.

Whether you are holding the phone, communicating with someone outside the car deflects your attention away from what’s happening right around you. Moreover, when you’re cruising through town or down the highway, your buddy in the passenger seat is probably aware of the immediate driving environment while Aunt Helen on the phone from Chicago is not. If you enter an icy or otherwise dicey intersection, your buddy should know to pipe down. Aunt Helen in Chicago will keep sharing the family gossip, oblivious to your road conditions.

My stance on driving and hands-free phones does not endear me to anyone.

When I mention that the science doesn’t support claims of safety, people snicker and scoff and roll their eyes. They reject the research, or insist the findings don’t apply to them. (Luckily, after a brief learning curve, my boyfriend has been compliant in this regard.)

Even some public health experts at my own university choose to ignore the data. A couple of years ago, I called a Berkeley, Calif., colleague, a physician and health prevention advocate, at a predesignated time — and realized he had scheduled our meeting during his drive home. I sputtered in protest. “Hands-free!” he assured me. I hung up, of course. Later, when he was stationary, I scolded him and referenced the research. He sheepishly conceded the point. But I doubt he changed his behavior.

Sometimes I deploy another argument. I explain that I really, really do not want to be an audio-witness to an accident, especially one causing injury or death.

If a friend had a fatal crash on a Los Angeles freeway while chatting with me in San Francisco, my participation-by-phone and its possible role in the incident would haunt my conscience without end. I shut down these calls immediately because I am highly motivated to avoid that outcome.

It’s been such a pleasure to have a break from this predicament for close to a year. But as vaccination rates rise and people reemerge and more cars begin to roll, I’m sure I’ll once again find myself hanging up abruptly on lots of hands-free drivers.

I’m not especially looking forward to that.

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