Hands-free dangers

Amid much fanfare several years ago, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law a ban on the use of handheld cell phones while driving. The controversial law took more than a decade to pass the General Assembly, but it was hailed as a "giant step" toward highway safety in Maryland.

But how safe is driving while talking on a cell phone equipped with hands-free capability? That's the question raised by a story in The Sun by Candy Thomson. She reported that the trash truck driver involved in the horrific May 28 crash involving a CSX train in Rosedale told a police investigator that he was using such a device at the time.


The crash caused a derailment and major explosion — from the destruction of a rail car containing sodium chlorate — that could be heard miles away and injured four people including the driver. The incident remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, and we would be cautious to draw too many conclusions from the Baltimore County police report alone. That report, incidentally, includes the driver's claim that he "looked to the right and left and did not see anything" before attempting to cross the tracks, even though recovered surveillance camera video shows that he did not stop at the crossing.

Nevertheless, that the driver admits he was using his cellphone with a Bluetooth device offers one of the most high-profile demonstration yet that the problem of driver distraction from a cell phone is not fully addressed by the use of an earpiece, headset or similar technology. It's likely that the truck driver, John Alban Jr., 50, of Essex, who has been charged by police with negligent driving and a half-dozen other traffic violations, would have been paying closer attention to the task at hand if he had not been talking on his cell phone.


Just this month, a study supported by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that there are circumstances when a driver's attention span can be dangerously overloaded by talking, texting or sending emails by use of a hands-free device on a smart phone. The study, which used cameras and EEG devices to judge a driver's mental workload, found that even built-in vehicle navigation systems can be a major distraction.

Using a cellphone hands-free is certainly an improvement over holding one to an ear — if only because it allows drivers to keep both hands on the wheel — but it does not eliminate the threat of distraction entirely. As earlier studies have shown, driving is a complex task, and most anything that limits a driver's ability to respond to unforeseen roadway dangers raises the risks of a crash.

The real threat to public safety is distraction. Nationwide in 2011, 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver, which was slightly more than the previous year despite public awareness of the problem and the growing number of states, Maryland included, that have banned use of handheld cellphones while driving.

Distractions can come in all shapes and sizes. Cell phone conversations can be one source of distraction, but so can eating and drinking, adjusting the radio, grooming, watching a video or talking to passengers. The invention of the smart phone — and texting — has simply become the latest manifestation of this.

At the very least, the questions raised by how technology can distract drivers ought to cause the automotive industry to reconsider some of the elaborate hands-free technology installed in new cars. It's one thing to punch a preset button on a radio to get a station, but it's perhaps another to pick from a menu of options in a virtual conversation with an onboard computer about playing music, initiating a telephone call, setting air conditioning temperature and selecting a destination.

Obviously, regulations alone aren't the solution. A ban on use of cell phones of any kind probably isn't all that useful if it's also impossible to enforce — which will be the case until it's made illegal for a driver to move his or her lips, one might assume. More needs to be done to educate drivers on just how deadly driver distractions can be. Otherwise, it's likely that motorists, commercial truck drivers included, are going to be involved in more accidents where cell phones played a critical role.