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Where Does Hands-Free Calling Go From Here?

Bluetooth hands-free devices do not prevent driver distraction, according to research a government agency failed to make public back in 2003, we learned this week from a NewYork Times article.

This is not the first research showing that it is the actual conversation on the cellphone that causes distraction to drivers, not the act of holding a phone. And there is other research with opposite findings.

But the fact that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) failed to make hundreds of pages of research public with these findings six years ago has helped smooth the way for an industry to blossom around hands-free devices that were supposed to solve the distraction problem.  Now, it turns out, they may not.

The NHTSA had been instructed by Congress not to lobby the states, and so the NHTSA stayed quiet about the research, a former NHTSA director told the Times – all of which seems to make little sense.

The suppressed NHTSA research found: *Cellphone use by drivers caused around 955 fatalities in 2002 as well as 240,000 accidents.

*The distraction is due to the conversation, not holding the cellphone.

*Legislation forbidding the use of hand-held cellphones while driving is not recommended because it doesn’t address the problem and may lead drivers to think hands-free phones are safe.

*Drivers talking on a cellphone are four times as likely to crash as other drivers, and are as likely to cause an accident as someone with 0.08 blood alcohol content.

*Six percent of drivers are talking on the phone at any given time.

Yes, thousands of lives have been lost.

And the NHTSA’s cover up had the less egregious effect of allowing a cottage industry of Bluetooth hands-free devices to flourish. The Consumer Electronics Association pegs 2008 sales to dealers of Bluetooth headsets at $1 billion last year and sales of car stereo hands-free kits at $59 million. In addition, the hands-free feature is found in portable GPS devices and in car radios and even in factory radios such as the Ford Sync.

No suppliers have yet responded to my emails late yesterday requesting a reaction to the research now public. Only OnStar has promised to get back to me.

It should be emphasized that there is research that supports different findings. Ford issued a press release in February citing Department of Transportation research that found talking on a hands-free device is safer than on a cellphone.

Of course, Bluetooth hands-free devices may be sold on the basis of convenience rather than safety, and many consumers are likely now used to the feature.