Illinois handheld phone ban may not be reducing distracted driving

In January of this year, Illinois became one of about a dozen states to strengthen its distracted driving laws by banning the use of handheld cellphones. In order to make or receive phone calls behind the wheel, drivers will now have to use a headset or other hands-free device (including in-car systems that respond to voice commands).

The handheld ban was enacted with good intentions, but it may do little to actually decrease the number of distracted driving accidents. Contrary to popular belief, at least 30 studies have shown that hands-free devices are not really any safer while driving than handheld cellphones are.

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and a group called the National Safety Council is promoting the message that “Hands-free is not risk free.” Despite the numerous studies showing that hands-free devices are equally dangerous, the NSC says, the majority of Americans still believe otherwise. The results of a national poll conducted by the NSC show that about 80 percent of those surveyed believe that hands-free devices are a safe alternative to handheld cellphones while driving.

The NSC’s senior director of Transportation Initiatives recently explained that “the problem is the brain does not truly multi-task. Just like you can’t read a book and talk on the phone, you can’t safely operate a vehicle and talk on the phone.” The fact that automakers are frequently including Bluetooth and “infotainment” systems in new vehicles probably adds to the misconception. Many drivers assume hands-free devices must be safe because automakers wouldn’t make them available as features if they weren’t.

If you are a strong advocate for ending the scourge of distracted driving on Illinois roads, please help spread the message that hands-free does not mean risk-free. Until we correct this widespread misconception, even well-meaning drivers may be putting themselves and others at serious risk.

Source: Insurance Journal, “Why Hands-Free Cell Phones Are Not Safer: Safety Council,” April 15, 2014