Connecticut, and many other states in the nation, have laws in place restricting drivers’ use of cell phones. In fact, it is illegal for drivers to use a hand-held cell phone altogether. Studies show the dangers of cell phone distraction and the dangers drivers impose on others when they choose to use their cell phones while behind the wheel. In 2018 alone, more than 2,800 people were killed in distracted driving car accidents across the U.S, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 

Hands-free cell phones are often marketed to drivers as a safe alternative to hand-held devices. With these devices, drivers are able to maintain a conversation without having to take their hands off the steering wheel and eyes off the road. Yet, studies show that they still cause a significant amount of cognitive distraction. 

The study 

In a study published by AAA, researchers measured the amount of cognitive distraction caused by distracted driving. Researchers asked participants to operate a simulator vehicle, as well as a car set up with monitoring equipment. As drivers navigated through the course, they were asked to complete several tasks, including the following: 

  • Talk with a passenger in the vehicle 
  • Listen to the radio 
  • Listen to an audio book 
  • Compose an email using voice-activated technology 
  • Talk with someone using a hand-held cell phone 
  • Talk with someone using a hands-free cell phone 

Researchers monitored drivers’ heart rate, eye movement, response time and brain activity as they engaged in the tasks. They found that while hands-free cell phones caused less manual and visual distraction than other activities, they still caused a significant amount of cognitive distraction. 

A look at cognitive distraction 

Cognitive distractions remove drivers’ focus off driving. The brain cannot focus on two complex tasks at once, but switches back and forth between tasks. While the driver concentrates on the conversation taking place, he or she is not fully focused on the road and may be less likely to respond to objects in the road, bad weather conditions, traffic signals, pedestrians and other drivers.