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Driver distraction and the ‘hands-free’ deception

Bryn Mawr Hospital April 6, 2018 General Wellness By Frederick Kotalik, MD

Q: Now that I have a teenager with a driver’s license, I’m a lot more aware of my own behavior while driving, especially when it comes to using a cell phone. I do hands-free calling for business a lot and sometimes text when I’m stopped in traffic. But now I’m more concerned about doing this because I don’t want my child to do the same. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Many of us are guilty of distracted driving so this will likely resonate with adult drivers as well as young people just learning how to drive. And there’s nothing like having to set an example for our children to make a needed change in our own behavior!

Rather than look at rules about cell phone use, let’s talk about what’s happening in the brain that influences the way we interact with our phones—and how we are deceived into thinking we can use our phones (in any capacity) while also doing a good job of driving.

First of all, the idea of “hands-free” being somehow safer or more acceptable is misleading. Some states have passed laws about hands-free cell phone use while driving which mistakenly leads us to believe that driving with both hands on the wheel is enough. (You can learn more about Pennsylvania’s distracted driving laws, which prohibit text/email communications but allow talking on the phone.) In fact, driving while talking on the phone—regardless of whether your hands are on the wheel—is considered “cognitive distraction” or having the mind off the road.

Taking your eyes off the road for five seconds, at 55 miles per hour, is like driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed. – Highway Safety Administration

In a classic case of “inattention blindness,” a young woman in Grand Rapids, Michigan, ran a red light while talking on the phone. Both hands were on the wheel, her eyes were straight ahead on the road, yet she passed through several lanes of cars stopped at the red light and slammed into a vehicle that was going through the intersection. The accident resulted in the death of a 12-year-old boy.

With inattention blindness, we “look” but don’t actually “see”—and this happens any time the brain must move back and forth between tasks. It has been scientifically proven that multitasking is a fallacy, and the brain is not really able to do two things at once. Rather, the brain rapidly switches back and forth, and does neither task optimally. When we’re driving and talking on the phone (let alone looking down and texting), it seems like we are able to do both things well. After all, driving is mechanically pretty easy assuming normal road conditions. Staying engaged mentally is more difficult as most of us have had the experience of driving a considerable distance without remembering much about the journey. But if you add in cognitive distractions while driving such as talking, texting, eating, and fumbling with the GPS—all of which require the brain to switch to another task while still managing the vehicle and potential road distractions—it’s easy to understand why cell phone use of any kind quadruples your chances of having a crash.2 Also, the brain doesn’t “catch up” right away after a phone conversation or texting. It takes a moment for the brain to switch back to focusing on the road.

Hands-free phone use led to an increase in reaction time to braking vehicles in front of drivers, and reaction time increased more and crashes were more likely as the traffic density increased.1

It’s important to note what else is happening in the brain when you get a text alert or phone call. These alerts, reminders and interruptions trigger dopamine, a pleasure-seeking chemical in our brains that gets released every time we receive a text or email. It makes us seek or want the pleasure of finding out what’s in the message. Then the opioid system gets activated once we’ve received and are satisfied with what we found. The dopamine drive, however, to seek instant gratification, is much stronger than the opioid response—and no one is exempt from it.

This is reflected in a AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey that found 83 percent of respondents believed that driving and cell phone use is dangerous is a “serious” or “extremely serious” problem yet more than half of the same respondents admitted to talking on cell phones while driving in the last 30 days. The multitasking allure is that strong! And it’s not just teenagers driving while distracted. It’s their parents setting the example, and people of every generation who mistakenly assume that hands-free means distraction-free driving.

So what to do about cell phone use while driving? Remove the distractions. Turn off the alerts by downloading an app such as AT&T’s It Can Wait, which stops incoming messages from disturbing you while you’re driving. The sender of the message gets an automated response informing them that you’re driving and will have to respond later. In the near future, we will likely see mobile phone companies devising ways for incoming calls to be blocked while you’re in a moving vehicle, but for now you can go to your phone’s security settings and adjust your incoming calls settings when you start off on your journey. Encourage your family members to download the app, particularly young drivers in the family. It’s encouraging to see young celebrities promoting the It Can Wait campaign.

If you do allow incoming calls, get in the habit of letting the call go to voicemail or telling the person that you’re driving and you’ll get back to them after you’ve reached your destination. You can also help others drive more safely by noting when they’re driving and talking on the phone with you. Choose to end the call and talk later. The responsibility goes both ways.

If you need help with something on your phone, ask another passenger to help you manage it. Kids in the back seat may also be able to help and can learn a safe practice in the process.

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Make changes now for a distraction-free driving environment all year long.

Distracted driving education and outreach

Main Line Health Community Health Services provides information and outreach around distracted driving, including:

  • Drinking, Drowsy, Distracted Driving, an informational board that can be seen at health fairs and community events
  • DUI Goggles that simulate how it feels to be an impaired driver; often used with students in our local school districts as well as universities
  • Mock Crash Program in which we partner with local high schools to provide a highly energized, simulated crash with actual students playing the accident victims; local emergency responders as well as the County Coroner play out the roles involved in a crash

The Mock Crash Program is often offered in conjunction with Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital’s Cruisin' Smart Program.

To learn more about distracted driving outreach at Main Line Health, call Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital at 484.596.5400.

1. Strayer, D L, Drews, FA, Johnston, WA. Cell phone-induced failures of visual attention during simulated driving. Journ Exp Psychol: Appl. 2003;9(1),23-32.
2. AAA Foundation