Distracted Driving Risks From Hand-Free Devices
May 25, 2013

Researchers Investigate Safety Risks Of Using Hands-Free Devices While Driving

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The dangers of speaking on a cellphone or texting while driving have been well documented, but new research from the University of Alberta (U of A) suggests that using a hands-free device to talk while behind the wheel of a car can also lead to a significant increase in driver-related errors that could put others at risk.

Yagesh Bhambhani, a professor in the U of A Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, and graduate student Mayank Rehani showed that drivers who talk using hands-free cellular devices are far more likely to make mistakes such as crossing the center line, speeding, or failing to use turn signals while changing lanes.

Furthermore, the increase in errors also corresponded with an increased heart rate and brain activity.

According to the researchers, they became interested in the topic four years ago, shortly after the province of Alberta introduced legislation banning the use of handheld cellphones while driving, but not hands-free devices.

The study, which was completed by Rehani for his master´s thesis in rehabilitation sciences at the university, involved the use of infrared spectroscopy to study the brain activity of 26 participants who completed a driving course using the Virage VS500M driving simulator at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.

Near infrared spectroscopy is a non-invasive optical technique which allows investigators to study real-time changes in brain activity in the left prefrontal lobe, the researchers explain. Subjects were first tested in a controlled condition, using the simulator to drive in city street conditions without using cellphones. They were then tested again while talking on a hands-free device during non-emotionally-charged, two-minute conversations.

“The research team found there was a significant increase in brain activity while talking on a hands-free device compared with the control condition,” the university explained in a statement. “A majority of participants showed a significant increase in oxyhemoglobin in the brain, with a simultaneous drop in deoxyhemoglobin — a sign of enhanced neuronal activation during hands-free telecommunication.”

“The findings also indicated that blood flow to the brain is significantly increased during hands-free telecommunication in order to meet the oxygen demands of the neurons under the 'distracted' condition,” Bhambhani said.

He added that the results did not reveal a significant relationship between enhanced activation of neurons and the increase in the number of driving errors. This is probably due to the fact that the researchers recorded the near infrared spectroscopy measurements at a single location, the prefrontal lobe.

Rehani, who was awarded the 2013 Alberta Rehabilitation Award for Innovation in Rehabilitation (Student) for his work on the study, and Bhambhani noted that this is only a preliminary study. However, they hope it can become part of a larger body of research that will help educate policy-makers about the potential safety implications associated with the use of hands-free devices while operating a motor vehicle.