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Drivers in Washington can legally use hands-free devices, but research shows that these devices are just as distracting as handheld cell phones.

In 2013, car crashes that involved driver distraction caused 120 deaths and 495 injuries in Washington, according to the state’s Traffic Safety Commission. This may surprise Spokane Valley residents who are familiar with the state’s laws. Under these laws, all drivers are banned from texting and talking on handheld cell phones. Unfortunately, research suggests that drivers who legally use hands-free phones may still be dangerously inattentive and likely to cause distraction-related crashes.

The costs of cognitive distraction

Many people think that hands-free cell phones are less distracting than handheld cell phones because they require less manual or visual input. However, a growing body of research contradicts this belief. According to the National Safety Council, over 30 studies have examined the risks associated with using hands-free and regular cell phones while driving. All of these studies determined that the use of hands-free devices offers no safety benefits.

Hands-free devices can be dangerous because they do not eliminate mental distraction. When drivers are focusing on multiple tasks, their brains must switch quickly between those tasks. Although drivers might not realize it, these shifts have harmful effects on driving performance. Research has shown that drivers who are talking on cell phones experience all of the following problems:

• Slower response times. The time that a driver spends switching between focusing on using a cell phone and paying attention to driving can create dangerously delayed reactions.

• Blindness to environmental cues. Drivers who are focused on other tasks may fail to process half of the stimuli immediately around them.

• Reduced spatial processing. Listening or speaking to another person can decrease the amount of attention that a person has to dedicate to navigating or assessing visual stimuli.

Problematically, many drivers may overlook these performance impairments. Slow response times and obliviousness to environmental cues, for example, may not be obvious until an accident or near miss occurs.

Dangerous levels of impairment

Troublingly, research indicates that drivers who are using hands-free cell phones may be just as impaired as drunk drivers. One study found that drivers who were legally intoxicated exhibited faster reaction times than drivers who were using hands-free cell phones. The drivers who were distracted were more likely to brake later and take longer to adjust their speeds in simulated work zones.

Data from the Washington State Traffic Commission supports the assertion that distracted drivers may be just as dangerous as drunk drivers. In 2013, drunk drivers in Washington caused more fatal car accidents than distracted drivers. However, distracted drivers caused more crashes that resulted in injury. Additionally, since distraction can be difficult to establish as a factor in an accident, even more serious accidents might have involved inattentive drivers.

Even though hands-free cell phone use remains legal in Washington, victims of these distracted driving accidents do not lack legal recourse. Victims who can prove that the other driver was distracted or otherwise acting negligently may be entitled to compensation. Anyone who has been harmed in one of these accidents should consider consulting with a car accident lawyer about the available legal options.

Keywords: distracted driving, cellphone, car accident

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