In an attempt to help distracted drivers focus on the road, car companies are marketing new technologies that expand the hands-free functions a person can perform in a vehicle. Some, such as the National Transportation Safety Board, applaud any moves that help distracted driving but aren’t convinced new gadgets are the answer to a significant problem.

The new technologies range from using voice commands to change the music or temperature in the car, to having your email read to you and allowing you to dictate a response.

Organizations trying to promote safe driving argue that there are different kinds of distracted driving that hands-free technology doesn’t help. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has three definitions of distracted driving:

  • Taking your hands off the wheel
  • Not looking at the road
  • Thinking about something else while driving

The NHTSA argues that while hands-free gadgets do help protect from visual and manual distractions, they do nothing to prevent mental distraction. A study by researchers at the University of Utah suggested that driving while talking on a cell phone is as dangerous as drunk driving, and it was not clear hands-free phones were significantly better than handheld ones.

Distracted Driving Laws Rarely Prohibit Hands-Free Cell Phones

Bans on texting are becoming popular among states, with 30 currently prohibiting all drivers from texting while driving. However, no state prohibits hands-free cell phone use for all drivers. Certainly most drivers would discourage such legislation. Many commuters use their drive time to contact clients or colleagues and find it necessary to use the drive-time for business. Others refuse to give up the connection to friends and family while driving.

Research comparing the relative safety between handheld and hands-free distracted driving is unclear. The NHSTA will release a study later this year that should help to determine if hands-free devices help problematic distracted drivers.

Handheld or Hands-Free, Distracted Driving Still a Problem

Regardless of what kind of distraction affects motorists, distracted driving is causing accidents. Distracted drivers killed nearly 5,500 motorists in 2009, according the, and over half a million were injured. About 18 percent of accidents with fatalities involved cell phone use.

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