Assume the hands-free phone in your car means you are in full control on the road? Think again. Or better still, switch off the phone, then think again.
A new brain-imaging study suggests that just listening to someone over a cellphone while driving may distract the brain enough to cause an accident. Researchers found that listening appears to divert the brain’s resources that would normally go toward navigating the road.
Earlier studies have already hinted that those who use cellphones while driving run a greater risk of accidents—and hands-free phones do not seem to make much of a difference. These new findings, reported in the journal Brain Research earlier this month, cast further doubt on the idea that hands-free cell phones are safer. The study included 29 volunteers who used a driving simulator while inside an MRI brain scanner. Participants steered along a winding “virtual” road, once with no distractions and once while listening to various sentences and trying to decide whether they were true or false. The researchers found an increase in driving errors when the drivers were trying to decipher the sentences. They had a tendency to drift more in their simulated lanes and were more likely to hit the virtual guardrail.
It seems that talking on a cellphone has a special social demand that requires additional thought as not paying attention to the conversation may be interpreted as being rude. In contrast, a passenger in the car can see when the driver needs to focus on the road and may stop talking. Listening to music, the study found, can be more readily tuned out. So, crank up the Feist, and switch off that cell!