Driving while talking on a hands-free phone can be as distracting as talking on a hand-held mobile, according to researchers at the University of Sussex in England.
“A popular misconception is that using a mobile phone while driving is safe as long as the driver uses a hands-free phone,” said Dr. Graham Hole, senior lecturer in psychology at the university.
“Our research shows this is not the case. Hands-free can be equally distracting because conversations cause the driver to visually imagine what they’re talking about. This visual imagery competes for processing resources with what the driver sees in front of them on the road,” he explained.
The use of hand-held phones was made illegal primarily because they interfere with vehicle control, but Hole noted that the study “adds to a mounting body of research showing that both hand-held and hands-free phones are dangerously distracting for drivers. The only ‘safe’ phone in a car is one that’s switched off.”
The study, which tracked eye movements, also found that drivers who were distracted suffered from “visual tunneling,” which caused them to focus their eyes on a small central region directly ahead of them.
This led them to miss hazards in their peripheral vision, while undistracted participants’ eye movements ranged over a much wider area, added the study, which was published in the “Transportation Research” journal.
Hole said anything that causes drivers to imagine something visually, including passengers, can interfere with driving performance because the two tasks compete for similar processing resources.
“However, chatty passengers tend to pose less of a risk than mobile phone conversations,” he affirmed, explaining that they will usually “moderate the conversation when road hazards arise” or pick up on non-verbal cues to ease the flow of conversation as required.
However, someone on the other end of a mobile phone is oblivious to the demands on the driver and will keep talking, Hole said. “Phone conversations are more taxing because they lack these cues.”
The study, titled “Imagery-inducing distraction leads to cognitive tunnelling and deteriorated driving performance,” was authored by Gemma F. Briggs (now at the Open University but conducted while at the University of Sussex), Graham J. Hole and Michael F. Land (University of Sussex).
Source: University of Sussex
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