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'Hands-Free' Devices Unsafe While Driving: Report

They cause mental distraction that can lead to crashes, experts warn
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Behaviors like listening to the radio were a very mild mental distraction, which researchers classified as a level-one distraction, Kissinger said. Voice-activated technology, however, was very distracting at level three, which is considered the highest risk.

Another expert said inattentive driving existed before the era of electronic devices -- hands-free or otherwise.

"Distracted driving is a big problem on the road, but it has always been a big problem, even before cellphones and other electronic devices came along," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Even so, researchers expected to see a wave of crashes as electronic devices proliferated, but the opposite is happening on the road: Police-reported crashes have been on the decline."

"[However], this doesn't mean that electronic devices aren't distracting," Rader said. "Every study, including this new one, demonstrates that they are distracting. It does mean we need to better understand how drivers are integrating these systems into the driving task."

A CDC expert agreed that hands-free devices don't solve the problem of distracted driving.

"Hand-free devices may take away some of the visual and physical distractions that come with handling or dialing a phone, but we can't say that hands-free is risk-free, because there is still a mental distraction," said Rebecca Naumann, an epidemiologist at the CDC's Injury Center.

'"You still have the distraction that your mind is taken off of the driving," she said. "Anything that takes your hands off the wheel or your mind off the road poses a risk to safety."

"Drivers should commit to distraction-free driving," Naumann said.

Distracted driving "has real consequences," Kissinger said. "We should heed that and minimize all the distractions while driving. Keep our hands on the wheel and our eyes on the road and, most importantly, keep our mind on driving."

Despite the risks, AAA is not calling for a ban on these devices, but is starting to work with car makers to find ways to make in-car voice and text systems safer.

Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, added that "our expectation is that in-vehicle systems will improve and thus become safer. Our advice to drivers is to not use any type of cellphone while driving."

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