Michael Barr writes in abcnews.com that switching to a hands-free cell phone while driving does not reduce accidents. States like New York, that have banned driving while talking on a conventional cell phone, are discovering this.

Psychologist David Strayer says, “We’ve done a couple of studies that have directly compared handheld and hands-free cell phones. We didn’t find any difference.” He used a driving simulator to track the eye movements of people behind the wheel as they talked on a hands-free phone. The simulator displayed signs and billboards along the virtual highway, and at the end of the trip, drivers were asked how many they saw. Drivers who used hands-free cell phones only noticed half as many signs as drivers who weren’t talking on the phone at all.

Strayer says that the brain can only pay attention to a limited number of tasks at one time. Holding a conversation requires levels of concentration that impair the brain’s ability to process visual clues. The drivers “saw” the signs, but their brains didn’t process or remember the information.

“When people are talking on the cell phone their reactions are slowed by about 20%,” says Strayer. “Even though the driver who is using the cell phone is looking out the windshield, they’re not necessarily seeing what’s out there.”

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