In the early morning hours of March 26, 2010, a van carrying 12 people bound for a wedding in Iowa was traveling northbound on I-65 when a tractor-trailer crossed the highway median and collided with it nearly head-on. Ten people in the van and the truck driver were killed, making it the worst crash in Kentucky in more than two decades.
The NTSB found that the truck driver lost control of his vehicle after becoming distracted by the use of his cell phone. While it could not be determined whether the driver was holding his phone or using it in a hands-free mode, numerous studies have shown that the crash risk between hand-held and hands-free conversations is almost identical.
That’s why in 2011, the NTSB recommended that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration prohibit commercial drivers from using a cell phone while operating a commercial vehicle. The FMCSA did take steps to ban texting and the use of handheld devices when driving. However, the same restrictions are not applied to hands-free devices, based on FMCSA’s determination that hands-free operations are not a safety risk.
Studies and accident investigations tell a very different story. Just yesterday, another study on cognitive distraction was released, which found “significant impairments to driving from the diversion of attention.” That research, conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, rated the use of hands-free and hand-held cell phones as almost equal sources of cognitive distraction.
The NTSB saw just that in its investigation of a motorcoach accident when a cognitively distracted driver using a hands-free cell phone collided with the underside of a bridge overpass in Virginia after failing to notice clearly visible low-clearance signs. Not only did he miss the signs, he said he didn’t even see the bridge.
The evidence is clear: Distraction is in the head, not the hands.