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Hands-free phones and driving are a deadly combination

Everybody has a cellphone these days. If you're like most people, you may occasionally (or even frequently) find yourself talking on the phone behind the wheel. Bluetooth technology makes it easier than ever to talk hands-free, which most people assume is much safer than holding a phone up to your ear while driving.

However, a new study suggests that drivers vastly underestimate the risks involved in talking on a phone while driving - even with a hands-free device.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Sussex, sheds light on just how dangerous hands-free phone use can be. Participants in the study who engaged in the equivalent of talking on a phone while driving reacted to only half as many hazards as those who weren't, and their reaction time was nearly a full second slower. At highway speeds, that second translates into almost 100 feet of distance - a lot of ground to cover while essentially unaware of what's going on.

Why is talking on a phone so distracting?

The evidence suggests that engaging in conversation over the phone requires participants to create vivid mental imagery. As a result, the driver's eyes may still be on the road, but their brain is in another place. Dragging the brain back to reality costs valuable time, which could mean the difference between avoiding a collision and plowing straight into another vehicle.

But what about engaging in conversation with another passenger in the vehicle?

Fortunately, you don't have to take a vow of silence just because you're driving. Research indicates that chatty passengers don't cause the same level of distraction as talking on the phone. Because passengers are physically in the car, they provide another set of eyes on the road. When trouble arises, the passenger will usually quiet down and assist the driver - something that can't be done over the phone. Similarly, radio doesn't involve as many risks because it's not interactive.

Despite the evident dangers of talking on a cellphone while driving, hands-free phone use is still perfectly legal in every state, including Florida. Perhaps the law will change as more and more people fall victim to distracted driving.

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