Mind & Body

Your Phone Makes You a Worse Driver Even if You Don't Touch It

As a responsible adult, you no doubt know that driving while using your phone is dangerous. No problem — you've invested in a hands-free setup to make sure you can safely stay connected while in your car. That sounds great, except for the heap of science currently piling up that shows your phone makes you a worse driver even if you don't touch it.

Siri Can't Save You

Every year, cars get more bells and whistles designed to keep passengers safe, yet in the last two years, traffic-related fatalities in the U.S. have jumped 14 percent: the biggest rise in half a century. Factors like an improving economy leading to more driving and less enforcement of traffic laws partly explain this alarming statistic. But there's another culprit too, according to experts: our phones.

But wait, you might respond. Haven't many states passed laws banning phone use while driving? Indeed they have, which is why car manufacturers have introduced tech to allow people to keep their eyes on the road while interacting with their phones. "Most new vehicles sold today have software that connects to a smartphone and allows drivers to place phone calls, dictate texts and use apps hands-free," reports the New York Times.

The problem, however, is that a boatload of science is showing that, even if you never look at or touch your phone, it still makes you a much worse driver. For instance, research from David Strayer, a University of Utah psychologist, has found that "drivers can get a sort of 'tunnel vision' when their minds are focused elsewhere. People can enter this state during a phone conversation, whether or not they're holding a phone," according to FiveThirtyEight.

"There's something like 35 studies now trying to compare handheld to hands-free, and they find that you're impaired with both," Strayer stresses to FiveThirtyEight. "There really isn't a safety advantage to one over the other."

Let's say that again: Talking on the phone while driving (or trying to get Siri or another digital assistant to do something for you) slows your reactions and makes you just as likely to make a mistake as holding the phone up to your ear. In fact, studies with driving simulators have found that driving while on a hands-free device is just as dangerous as driving drunk. Real-world studies have found less terrifying results, so the exact level of danger of handsfree devices is still being debated, but whether it turns out to be more or less than being three sheets to the wind, it's not good.

What's a Phone User to Do?

If we go back to our original assumption that most readers are responsible adults keen to avoid killing either themselves or others while driving, what lesson should you take from this science? Is it best to ban all phone-related activity while driving?

Pretty close. Listening to audiobooks or podcasts is one big exception. They don't seem to have a negative impact on driving ability, and might even help keep you alert on long drives. But safety experts stress you should get that program playing before you start rolling. In fact, you should never try to navigate your phone while driving, even handsfree. Turn off notifications, and for the love of all that's holy, don't try to text when you're at a stoplight!

"While your eyes and hands are on the phone, you're missing the changes happening in your surroundings — the pedestrian who just entered the crosswalk, the cyclist who pulled up next to you. If you look up and the light has changed, you don't have time to fully update your situational awareness. Putting the car in motion in that state is like shooting a gun before being sure of your target," cautions FiveThirtyEight.

The fact is that too many of us don't appreciate that reality is showing up in the recent grim safety statistics. If we want those numbers to start trending back down, we're going to have to realize that hands-free phone use is still dangerous phone use.

Need help weaning yourself off of your device? Check out "How to Break Up with Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life" by Catherine Price. The audiobook is free with a 30-day trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Is Using a Cell Phone While Driving Bad for Your Health?

Written by Jessica Stillman July 13, 2018

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