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Hands-Free Driving Laws: Dumb

It’s wireless safety week. I know, I know, it seems to come faster every year. 

I’ve always felt that cellphones get a bum rap when it comes to driving. I think it’s safe to say that the evidence is clear that aimless chatter while driving is dangerous. 

But so is: eating a bowl of cereal while you drive, reading a newspaper, typing on a laptop, taking a photograph and arm-wrestling. All things I’ve seen fellow drivers do throughout my years on the road. Yet legislators, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that the cellphone — not innate human stupidity — is to blame. 

The greater irony though, is that the proposed remedy — “a hands-free law” that forbids you from holding a cellphone but lets you use a headset — is as bad as the disease. That’s because according to nearly everypublishedstudy (and here, here and here) hands-free headsets don’t make you any safer. 

That’s because what makes cellphones dangerous in the car is not the act of diverting your eyes to press buttons or using a hand to hold the phone. No, it’s the lack of driver focus on the road. As one expert once put it to me, when two people talk inside a car, both are aware of the road and the conversation adjusts to external events (i.e. if a car in front of you starts to skid, the conversation stops). During a phone call, only the driver is watching the road. It’s the talking, not the handling of equipment, that is the fundamental danger when driving.

From an industry perspective hands-free driving laws likely have a healthy unintended consequence of driving more headset sales. But from a safety perspective, it appears to be nothing more than a placebo.