Research: Laws allowing any type of cellphone use endanger MN motorists

Research indicates that the use of hands-free and handheld cellphones, which is currently legal for most Minnesota drivers, is dangerously distracting. Distracted driving contributed to 17,500 crashes in Minnesota during 2013, according to the Star Tribune. While many people think of texting while driving first when they consider distracted driving, there are various other forms of distraction that, unlike texting, remain legal under state law. Research suggests that drivers talking on any kind of cellphone, whether hands-free or handheld, pose a particular risk to other Southeast Minnesota motorists.

An inability to multitask

It is not uncommon for drivers to believe that, if they are keeping their eyes on the road, they are giving driving enough focus. However, cognitive distraction is just as dangerous as visual distraction. The National Safety Council reports that handheld and hands-free phones create a serious cognitive distraction:

  • Drivers who are talking on any kind of cellphone have slower reaction times than drivers who are legally intoxicated.
  • Activity in the part of the brain that processes movement decreases by more than one-third when drivers are simply listening to language.
  • When drivers are both listening and speaking, they exhibit “inattention blindness” and fail to process up to half of the stimuli in their driving environments, including red lights and people on foot.

The NSC notes a few reasons that drivers underestimate the risks of hands-free and handheld phones. First, drivers often think talking on the phone is just like conversing with someone in the vehicle, though in reality, a passenger can see and respond to traffic problems. Second, most people think they can handle two cognitively challenging activities at once. However, the multi-tasking brain actually switches rapidly between different tasks, reducing performance at each task.

Even the hands-free devices being built into a growing number of vehicles can be dangerous. More than 30 studies show that using hands-free phones while driving is just as risky as using handheld phones, according to the NSC. However, 80 percent of drivers erroneously believe hands-free phones offer safety benefits.

Together, these findings suggest that Minnesota drivers face a significant risk of car accidents involving distracted drivers, including those drivers who may think they are being careful and conscientious.

Benefits of broader laws

Currently, Minnesota law only bans the general population of drivers from texting. Broader laws, like those that apply to bus drivers and novice drivers, could offer significant safety gains. These drivers are not permitted to use any handheld or hands-free cellphones.

A recent study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that primary texting bans only yield traffic fatality decreases of 3 percent, on average. General cellphone bans generate much more significant results, according to a UAB press release. This finding, along with the NSC research, suggests that an expansion of Minnesota’s limited hands-free and handheld cellphone bans could offer significant benefits for motorists.

In the meantime, distracted driving remains a serious threat to state residents. Anyone who has been hurt in an accident involving a distracted or otherwise negligent driver should consider speaking to an attorney about pursuing compensation.

Keywords: distracted driving, texting, accident, personal injury