The False Sense of Safety Created by Hands-Free Devices in Cars

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (L) and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski (R) testify about legislation to curb the behavior of drivers distracted by mobile phone calls, texts, and e-mail on Oct. 28, 2009 in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

On Feb. 16, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration released a set of voluntary guidelines for automobile manufacturers, focused on the reduction of driver distraction caused by built-in dashboard electronics. We are in dire need of clarity when it comes to technology use behind the wheel; laws vary by state, and are often unclear. Unfortunately, the proposed guidelines so far apply only to devices that cause manual and visual distraction—that is, they don’t apply to hands-free communications technologies.  

Today, it’s easier than ever to chat, text, and even Facebook while driving without taking a hand off the wheel, thanks to a new generation of smartphones and in-dash devices. Hands-free dashboard communication technologies are a central competitive focus of the automotive industry, with television campaigns showcasing the devices as legal alternatives for texting and Facebooking while driving.

But these technologies are creating a false sense of safety for drivers.

In a 2008 article in Slate, William Saletan reviewed scientific research showing that using a hands-free cell phone while driving is just as dangerous as using a handheld phone. Even if you keep your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, phone conversation results in a fourfold increase in crash risk and a level of impairment comparable to drunk driving. This leads researchers to conclude that the distraction of phones stems not from holding the device with one hand, but from having a conversation with someone not present in the car. Saletan went so far as to support the National Transportation Safety Board’s call for a nationwide ban on all cellular phone technologies while driving.

Now, new technological developments threaten to further undermine traffic safety. Though 35 U.S. states currently ban handheld texting-while-driving, and nine outlaw handheld phone conversations, there has been a distinct reluctance to regulate hands-free communication devices.

There are two flavors of new technology relevant here: voice-activated smartphone apps like Siri, and integrated hands-free cell technologies. New car models increasingly come with optional built-in phone devices accessed primarily by voice command, but also by buttons and thumb scrollers mounted on the steering wheel. For example, Ford’s Sync system, available in most 2012 models, enables drivers to hear incoming text messages read off by a robotic voice and then to place a return call or send one of a number of preset texts. General Motors is updating its OnStar system to enable hands-free texting and even Facebook interface. And this is only the beginning of the innovations to come for dashboard-based cellular and Internet technologies, with companies like Google and Intel looking to get in on the action.

These systems are lucrative and appeal to customers, so it’s easy to see why companies are investing in them. But I suspect it is only a matter of time before legislation catches up with the research, leading to a crackdown on distractions in the car—hands-free or otherwise.

Until cars can save us from our distracted selves, automotive manufactures would be wise to instead invest in devices that deliver vehicle maintenance information to drivers electronically, such as Ford’s Sync system which sends a vehicle’s “health report” to its owner via the Web, and the “e-services” feature of Kia’s Uvo system, which sends maintenance information straight to a smartphone application.