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With the prevalence of cellphones, many states have enacted laws designed to limit their use while driving. Texting while driving is illegal in almost every state, with Montana, Arizona, Texas and Missouri as the lone holdouts. Handheld cellphone use has been banned in 14 states, and partially banned in four more. No state has banned hands-free cellphone use for all drivers.

It would seem that many states are operating under the assumption that hands-free cellphone use is not distracting to drivers like handheld use is. At the very least, it’s assumed to be far less distracting. However, that assumption may in fact be false.

The Eyes Have It

There are three major factors when considering the dangers of using a cellphone while driving. Depending on the task being performed, a cellphone can divert your eyes, occupy your hand or distract your mind. By far the most dangerous of these is diverting the eyes.

A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed that “visual-manual subtasks” were responsible for the majority of the risk associated with using a handheld cellphone in the car. Tasks that divert your eyes present an obvious danger, which is why most states ban texting, and why Utah recently banned dialing a handheld phone while driving.

Handheld cellphones, as the term implies, occupy your hand while driving. This has been the major impetus behind the handheld cellphone bans in many states. However, the reason behind these bans doesn’t seem to hold up under scrutiny. A study published in the Journal of Safety Research found that driver performance was not significantly better when using a hands-free phone compared to a handheld one.

The NHTSA study also failed to find a link between talking on a handheld cellphone and accidents or near-accidents. In short, aside from tasks that require looking at the phone, there doesn’t seem to be much difference at all between using a hands-free cellphone and using a handheld one.

It’s All in Your Head

If hands-free cellphones aren’t significantly safer than handheld ones, are they significantly more dangerous than driving with no distractions? A study published in Transportation Research put drivers to the test on a closed-course driving track. It found that drivers were less perceptive and aware when using a hands-free phone. Drivers were slower to brake and avoid obstacles when also holding a conversation over the phone.

An analysis conducted by the University of Illinois also found that talking on a hands-free cellphone reduces reaction time. However, that study showed that drivers were similarly impaired when holding a conversation with a passenger.

According to the research, it seems that what your hands are doing isn’t nearly as important as what your mind is doing. Hands-free cellphones still distract you mentally, whether you’re aware of it or not. In fact, the distinction between hand-free phone use and handheld use seems almost meaningless from a safety standpoint, calling into question the many laws banning only the latter.

Accidents With Distracted Drivers

One of the biggest mistakes people make after getting into accident is to not get the all the details about what happened. The key word there is “all.” It can be difficult to tell if a person was holding a phone when they swerved into you, and even harder to tell if they were using a hands free device. However, by asking them to walk you through exactly what was happening at the time of the incident may be enough for someone to say they were on the phone. You could also just straight up ask.

If you’re the one who was driving distracted, the impact that detail will have depends entirely on what state you live in. If you have to use a phone while driving, at least know the laws, especially when crossing borders. I’ve seen many people pulled over on the Maryland boarder by police who were waiting and ready to ticket unsuspecting Pennsylvania handheld phone users.

Although it’s difficult to predict whether or not states will pursue banning cellphone use entirely, one thing is certain: You’re far safer keeping your eyes – and your mind – on the road.

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