Do Oregon’s laws go far enough to address distracted driving?

Oregon laws banning drivers from texting and using handheld phones don’t address the issue of cognitive distraction due to hands-free electronics.

Distracted driving is a common behavior with devastating consequences, as many people in Portland know. In 2012, 3,323 lives were lost in distraction-related car accidents, and an estimated 421,000 injuries occurred, according to Distraction.gov In Oregon, lawmakers have sought to address this issue by banning texting and all other forms of handheld cellphone use. Unfortunately, the scope of these laws may leave drivers vulnerable to another dangerous type of distraction.

Various hands-free devices, from cellphones to in-car systems, are widely viewed as safer alternatives to handheld devices. Consequently, most laws do not ban drivers from using these devices. However, research suggests that hands-free electronics may still create a significant risk of accidents.

Dangerous but legal distractions

Researchers from the University of Utah and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety recently conducted two distracted driving studies. According to Fox News, both studies tested the level of distraction associated with seven purportedly safe hands-free systems. Six of these systems were in-vehicle infotainment systems, and one was a widely used hands-free app. The researchers had participants use the systems while engaging in one of the following three tasks:

  • Performing tests in a laboratory setting
  • Completing a driving simulation
  • Driving under supervision through a neighborhood

The researchers monitored the participants and rated the level of distraction that each participant exhibited. Researchers found that four of the six in-vehicle systems actually distracted drivers more than talking via handheld cellphone. The hands-free phone app fared worst of all and was rated as the most distracting system observed. Researchers found that a system's tendency to make errors was correlated with the level of distraction that drivers displayed.

Problematically, many drivers may not be aware of the results of studies such as these two. Instead, drivers may believe hands-free systems are safe, since they are legal to use and sometimes built directly into vehicles. Drivers may not understand that these systems are completely unregulated and, therefore, potentially dangerous.

Consequences of cognitive distraction

The functional limitations of modern hands-free technology may compound the issue of driver distraction. However, research suggests that hands-free devices may also be inherently distracting because of the mental demands that they create. Improved design and increased regulation may help address this issue, but it may not make hands-free devices completely safe.

The National Safety Council reports that cognitive distraction may cause various impairments that affect a person's ability to drive safely. Distracted drivers may show delayed reaction times and reduced ability to process visual images. Drivers who are dealing with mental distractions may also fail to register half of the objects in their immediate environments. When these drivers overlook traffic signals, stop signs or other road users, the consequences may be devastating.

Addressing reckless driving decisions

In Oregon, drivers may be held responsible when they harm others while focusing on tasks other than driving. Even if a distraction is not illegal, a driver may be found negligent for engaging in it. People who have been injured in accidents involving distracted drivers should consider discussing their legal options with an attorney.

Keywords: texting, distracted, driving, accident