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Signals Mixed on Hands-Free Phone Safety

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Times Staff Writer

Like many of the 170 million cellphone owners across the nation, Karen Cooper enjoys using hers while driving.

During her grinding, sometimes hourlong evening commute from West Los Angeles to her home in Torrance, she can often be found with an ear bud wire dangling from her curly hair.

“When you’re sitting in traffic, it just gives you time to catch up with people,” said Cooper, 38, who uses a hands-free device because she believes it’s safer. “If you have a headset in, it should be completely fine. You’ve got both hands on the wheel.”

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New Jersey, New York state and Washington, D.C., have adopted laws banning cellphone use by drivers unless hands-free equipment is used. In the last few years, more than 30 other states, including California, have considered similar legislation.

“It improves the driver’s ability to control the vehicle,” said California Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who has been trying to pass such a bill for the last three years and may try again next year. “It’ll save lives.”

But several studies published in the last few months suggest that talking on a hands-free phone is not safer.

“Hands-free devices do not remove the risk and may in fact exacerbate the risk,” said Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington, D.C. “We don’t think that legislation is going to provide that safety benefit.”

But so far, Tyson said, “no state has asked our opinion.”

Cellphone use is linked to more auto accidents than any other distraction, including car stereos, eating, smoking or children, according to the California Highway Patrol. Last year in California, cellphones were a contributing factor in 1,321 crashes, in which 15 people were killed and 999 others were hurt, according to the CHP’s preliminary data. The final numbers might be higher, officials say.

The wireless industry acknowledges that cellphones can divert attention, but industry officials say the overall risk is minuscule.

“To single out cell use is unfair. Look at all the possible distractions,” said John Walls, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assn. in Washington, D.C.

“You’re allowed to play a radio and adjust its volume. You should be allowed to use your cellphone in your car. We think it’s an issue of personal accountability.”

A study funded by Plantronics, the maker of headsets for mobile phones, found that drivers using its devices steered more accurately and had faster response times than those holding a phone.

In a separate study, researchers at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that drivers using a simulated voice-activated dialing system spent more time looking forward than drivers who dialed manually. The study was funded by OnStar Corp., which offers a voice-activated wireless service.

But other recent studies, including one jointly released by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, found that hands-free devices made no difference in risk.

In a new University of Utah study of 48 subjects in a driving simulator, drivers talking on cellphones swerved more and missed four times more exits than drivers talking to someone sitting next to them.

“We see dramatic impairment when someone is talking on a cellphone,” said Utah psychology professor Frank Drews, who coauthored the study. “We found no difference [in driver performance] between hand-held and hands-free.”

Passengers can see roadway conditions and help a driver be vigilant, even pointing out sudden dangers, Drews said. They know when to shut up; cellular conversation partners don’t.

He also speculated that drivers using headsets talked longer because of the comfort and “illusory feeling that they are safe.”

A second University of Utah study of 64 participants tracked their eye movements as they used a driving simulator and talked on hands-free cellphones. The drivers appeared to be looking at the road. But they failed tests asking them to recall signs, cars, pedestrians and billboards that they had passed.

“It’s not so much the manual impairment. When people talk on a cellphone ... attention is directed away,” said psychology professor David Strayer, who co-authored the study.

A study paid for by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of 54 drivers found that those who used voice-activated systems made more dialing errors and took longer to connect than drivers who dialed manually.

Ginger Watson, coauthor of the study at the University of Iowa, said the results suggest that using hands-free devices may not be safer.

Another study, funded by the University of Nebraska, found no significant difference, when it came to seeing road signs, between drivers talking on hands-free cellphones and drivers who were not talking on a phone. But when other tasks were added, such as glancing at a calendar or taking notes, the reaction time of drivers on the phone suffered.

“If we force drivers to use hands-free [devices], eventually they will. But both of their hands will be free” for other tasks, said the study’s co-author, Ibraheem Al-Tarawneh, a senior engineer of Exponent, a consulting firm based in Menlo Park, Calif. “They will be eating, doing other things ... while driving and talking on the phone.”


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