Your hands-free device can still lead to wreckless driving: study

Talking on a hands-free device while behind the wheel can lead to wreckless driving, according to new research from the University of Alberta.

Announced Friday, a pilot study lead by Dr. Yagesh Bhambhani showed that drivers who talk using a hands-free cellular device made significantly more driving errors -- such as crossing the center line, speeding and changing lanes without signaling -- compared with just driving alone. The jump in errors also corresponded with a spike in heart rate and brain activity.

"It is commonplace knowledge, but for some reason it is not getting into the public conscience that the safest thing to do while driving is to focus on the road," said researcher Mayank Rehani. The researchers said that they became interested in the topic in 2009 shortly after Alberta introduced legislation that banned the use of handheld cellphones while driving but not hands-free devices.

In this study, they used a noninvasive optical technique called near 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 allowed the researchers to examine real-time changes in brain activity in the left prefrontal lobe. Participants were first tested in a control condition, using the simulator to drive in city street conditions using no telecommunications device. They were tested again while talking on a hands-free device during two-minute conversations that avoided emotionally charged topics.

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 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," said Bhambhani.