STUDY finds hands-free cell phone devices do little to improve driver awareness

Friday, August 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DETROIT (AP) _ Hands-free devices for cell phones do not appreciably reduce driver distraction, according to a study that suggests laws mandating the use of such devices may be ineffective.

The study, conducted by University of Utah researchers and released Thursday, concluded distractions are caused by concentration on the conversation, rather than dialing or holding the phone.

``It's not where the hands are, but where the head is,'' said Chuck Hurley of the Itasca, Ill.-based National Safety Council, which reported the study in the August/September issue of its publication Injury Insights.

The study involved 64 participants in a simulated driving environment. Participants who were talking on their cell phones missed twice as many simulated traffic signals and took longer to react to those signals they did detect.

There was no significant difference, however, between drivers using hands-free devices and those using hand-held phones.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that driver distraction _ including talking, eating, reading or even changing radio stations _ is involved in 20 percent to 30 percent of all crashes.

The president of the trade group representing the cell phone industry did not dispute the study's findings but echoed the safety council's call for drivers to use phones and other electronic devices responsibly.

``Any activity a driver engages in, besides the task of driving, has the potential to distract,'' Tom Wheeler, president and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, said in a statement.

In June, New York became the first state to pass a ban on using cell phones while driving. At least a dozen localities and 23 foreign countries have established bans, and at least 39 states are considering similar laws. An estimated 119 million Americans use cell phones.

Concern over new potential driver distractions is growing as automakers make available new on-board devices that make it possible, for instance, to send and receive e-mail, check appointments and ask for directions.