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Just because you have the physical ability to talk on the phone with a hands-free device and it’s legal in California, it doesn’t mean it’s not a risk for drivers. And while many may see multitasking as a skill, it turns out the human brain just isn’t equipped to handle more than one complex task at a time.
Published in the journal “Frontiers in Human Neuroscience,” researchers from St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto proved this point when they tested how well drivers could make a left turn while talking on a hands-free cell phone.
In the study, researchers reportedly monitored the brain activity of young, healthy drivers using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine as the subjects used a driving simulator. As the test subjects drove in increasingly difficult situations, researchers monitored their brain activity, focusing on which parts of the brain were activated during different driving tasks. They even threw the subjects some curve balls, like having them answer true-or-false questions while driving, simulating the experience of making a hands-free phone call.
Their findings included that during a left turn — especially while talking — the brain’s focus shifts from the visual cortex to the prefrontal cortex. This means that the brain diverts power away from the part that lets you see where you’re going, instead shifting toward the part dedicated to decision-making.
In a press release quoted by Healthline, lead researcher Dr. Tom Schweizer explained: “Visually, a left-hand turn is quite demanding. You have to look at oncoming traffic, pedestrians, and lights, and coordinate all that. Add talking on a cell phone, and your visual area shuts down significantly, which obviously is key to performing the maneuver.”
In California, a driver can’t drive while holding a cell phone in their hand for any reason. Drivers can only use their phones in a hands-free manner. Moreover, all drivers under the age of 18 are prohibited from using a cell phone for any reason. Driving while on the phone can be considered a type of distracted driving, which is defined as any activity that could divert attention from the primary task of driving.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 2,800 people were killed and an estimated 400,000 were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver in the U.S. in 2018. The CDC actually recommends not making phone calls to prevent distracted driving and the risks that come with it.
Furthermore, research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that those who multi-task the most are actually the least able to handle it. “Multitasking was shown to be particularly high amongst impulsive individuals who act without thinking and who have difficulty regulating their attention,” the researchers concluded. “These findings clearly suggest that multitasking is a matter of who is able to not multitask as much as it is a matter of who is able to multitask.”
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) monitored drivers for one year for a study, and found that the drivers who spent the greatest amount of their driving time interacting with a cell phone also had the highest rates of near crashes and crashes. And in an on-road study, drivers who reported frequent cellphone use drove faster, changed lanes more often and made more hard braking maneuvers than drivers who said they rarely used cellphones while driving.
The bottom line is: maybe reconsider using your cell phone while driving. It’s not entirely safe, even though it’s legal. “’Hands free’ does not mean ‘brain free,’” Schweizer said.