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In a Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011 file photo, a man uses a hands-free device to talk on a cellphone while driving, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

This is national Distracted Driving Awareness Month, when a national campaign aimed at improving traffic and roadway safety is urging drivers to turn off their phones, and eliminate other distractions that contribute to drivers focusing on something other than driving safely.

A significant new threat to roadway safety is technology that allows drivers to use hands-free, voice-activated texting devices while driving.

California last year passed a law that made texting while driving illegal, unless the driver was using hands free technology. Surely the elected officials who passed this law thought they were increasing safety by requiring drivers to keep their hands on the wheel while attending to their email, texts, Facebook posts, and Twitter feeds.

But, this is a dangerous exception that should be overturned because the reality is that hands-free texting while driving is not safe.

Recent research has highlighted the serious crash risk associated with hands-free texting while driving because it involves significant driver distractions, both cognitive and visual.

Cognitive distraction and inattention blindness are major factors in car crashes that have long been underestimated. Inattention blindness occurs when someone's brain does not process important visual information because they are concentrating on something else.


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An example of inattention blindness is when a driver looks but does not see a familiar freeway off-ramp, only to realize a mile later that they missed the exit. Of course, missing an off-ramp is a best-case scenario in which no one was killed or injured. Much more serious consequences are all too common.

Texting hands-free while driving significantly increases cognitive load that decreases driving performance; there is a direct relationship between increased cognitive load and missing safety critical events.

To compound this risk, drivers using voice-activated texting really are not really keeping their eyes on the road. The hands-free texting technology is still at a point where drivers need to look down at their dashboard display or phone to confirm that their words are being translated accurately.

Studies have shown that drivers using hands-free texting devices routinely glance down for about 2.5 seconds per glance to ensure their words are being transcribed accurately. The average following distance between cars is about 1.2 seconds. Traveling at 60 miles per hour, a car will move 264 feet in 2.5 seconds.

Cars traveling at this speed can come to a complete stop in 120 feet or less. If a texting driver glances down for 2.5 seconds at the wrong moment, they might completely miss seeing a car in front hitting the breaks, and look up just as they crashed into the stopped car. The occupants of the stopped car would likely have spinal or other life threatening injuries from such an impact. Sixty percent of rear end collisions are caused by distracted drivers.

Because of this combination of cognitive and visual distraction, texting while driving is actually more dangerous than drunken driving, behavior our society agrees should not be tolerated. Sadly, hundreds of thousands of people are killed or injured as a result of texting drivers.

We live in a car-based, and technology-focused culture. In June 2011, more than 196 billion text messages were sent or received, up 50 percent from June 2009. Technologies that help us communicate are great, but are not appropriate to be used if doing so puts your life and the lives of others at great risk.

If California does not act, we face more drivers checking and responding to email, posting to Facebook, and tweeting more often, for longer duration while attempting to drive. As drivers are focused on hands free texting, there is much greater likelihood that they will fail to recognize stop signs, pedestrians, or other cars, leading to tragic outcomes.

The compounding risks associated with cognitive and visual distraction as a result of hands-free texting while driving are clear. That is why ADEPT Driver is sponsoring AB313 by Assembly Member Jim Frasier that would reduce distracted driving by eliminating the exception for hands-free texting while driving.

This bill is also sponsored by the National Safety Council and supported by driver safety organizations, law enforcement organizations, and a number of leading auto insurance companies.

The public safety community is committed to saving lives and avoiding injuries by reducing the crash risks on our roads and highways. California's Legislature should observe National Distracted Driving Awareness Month by passing AB313.

Dr. Richard Harkness is a traffic safety psychologist and CEO of ADEPT Driver.