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Is hands-free calling really a safer alternative when driving?

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In the smartphone era, our connectivity is virtually limitless. We can call, text or chat with anyone, anywhere. As a result of this technology, instances of distracted driving-related car crashes have increased dramatically.

There has been a nationwide push to curtail distracted driving behavior. Colorado--and other states--have passed legislation banning texting while driving. Some states have also made it illegal to hold an electronic device in your hand while driving. Consequently, hands-free calling technology has been extoled as a safer form of phone communication when behind the wheel. In today's post, we examine why this type of calling is not actually as safe as you might expect.

The downside of hands-free calling

On the surface, this type of communication appears safe. You can talk to your friends and family without taking your hand off the wheel or your eyes off the road. Talking on the phone in this way may seem just as safe as talking to a passenger in the car with you. However, if you talk on the phone while driving--even hands-free--for just 50 minutes a month, you're five times more likely to get into an accident. Here's why:

Let's say you and your colleague are driving together to a conference. You're discussing next quarter's sales strategy. As you talk, you can both see the road conditions around you. If a reckless driver swerves suddenly into your lane, you'll both notice and naturally pause the conversation to dedicate more attention to maneuvering around them.

However, if you're speeding down the highway while on a conference call, no one else can see your driving environment. You're expected to be attentively participating in the discussion--listening and providing feedback. If there's a sudden dangerous shift in driving conditions, you'll be less inclined to pause your conversation or give an explanation to the others on the call. Even if you do pause, your colleagues are likely to respond by increasing their contribution--at the precise moment you need to focus on the road.

Splitting attention

You're brain only has limited cognitive real estate, and you can't pay full attention to two things at once. In other words, if you're paying sufficient attention to the conversation, that means you're paying insufficient attention to the road. If you're going to talk while driving, it's safest to have your conversation partner in the car with you. That way, you can both dedicate the necessary resources to making it a safe ride.

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