The Illusion of ‘Hands-Free’ Electronics

The next time I am out driving at 75mph in my beat-up Toyota minivan, I'm going to crack open the book I've been trying to finish for a couple of days now. As far as I can tell, there are no laws against reading while driving. If I can prop the book up on my dashboard, it will even be considered “hands-free,” so I know it won't violate any kind of safety rules.

As long as something is hands-free, it is considered safe. At least that is what car manufacturers want you to think. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, the following capabilities will soon be available in automobiles:

  • Ford: Stream Internet music, access news and podcasts, send a Tweet
  • Toyota: Buy movie tickets, book a table, check stocks, search on Bing
  • General Motors: Play videos and slide shows, access songs via voice command
  • Tesla Motors: Wireless Internet with 17-inch-screen, USB plugs
  • Mercedes-Benz: Check Facebook, read Twitter posts, use Google Local Search and Yelp

These are the same car makers that advertise the safety features of their automobiles every single day. I guess antilock brakes and airbags do come in handy if you are involved in a collision because you were updating your Facebook status while driving.

Hands-free does not qualify as “safe.” If you take your eyes off the road, you are distracted. Distraction is what causes accidents.

Here is some data cited by the WSJ that supports both sides of the distracted-driving argument:

    Auto makers point to studies, including one by researchers at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which show that talking on a cellphone increases the risk of a crash or near-crash by 1.3 times over regular driving, while physically dialing a number increased the risk 2.8 times. A person is more than 20 times more likely to be in a crash or near crash while sending text messages.

    Such data, which was gathered by monitoring hundreds of hours of drivers with cameras in day-to-day driving, has guided auto makers and the administration to the conclusion that “hands-free” activities are safe. Other studies, including one by University of Utah researcher Michael Strayer, show that talking on the phone, hands free or not, is equally dangerous. Most of newer car-electronics systems permit access to controls through a touch screen.

Carmakers insist they are just giving people what they want by piling electronics entertainment features in their cars. Being connected is a No. 1 priority. I get that. But there's a difference between being connected and being entertained. Is it really urgent that you get Facebook updates or tweets while you are driving? If something were that important, wouldn't your acquaintances call?

The fact is, even if my hands are still on the steering wheel, most of these functions are distracting. I would have to take my eyes off the road for a few seconds for most of them. But how many times have your voice-activated systems misinterpreted what you were saying? Or a search engine turns up the wrong search? Or asks you “Did you mean X ?” Have you ever gotten a tweet that is upsetting?

Then there is the issue of the technology. Voice activation has gotten better. Touchscreen technology and smart features (e.g. your device anticipating what you are about to ask for) have not. I touch the wrong thing all the time on touchscreens, and my typing isn't much better. I cancel; I delete. I start again. Sometimes I still grope for the right knob or dial in my rapidly-aging minivan.

Does a touchscreen know you meant to turn on the radio and not the wipers? I haven't met one that does. For an industry that spends decades developing and testing safety technology for vehicles, the standard for consumer electronics is surprisingly lax. The interfaces are still spotty and require a lot more attention than I can spare when I am on a highway. And the time I most need directions or to get updated on news and traffic is when I am driving full speed ahead and already stressed. In other words, distracted.

I understand people spend hours sitting in traffic, and that's when most of these functions are the most useful. If there was a way to limit these functions to speeds of 20mph or less, I might feel a bit safer. In fact, I know that technology exists. In the meantime, I'll tweet you about what route I am taking to my next appointment and you can find an alternative. I've got some reading to catch up on.

49 comments on “The Illusion of ‘Hands-Free’ Electronics

  1. Clairvoyant
    February 13, 2012

    Great article, Barbara. I agree with your points. In my opinion, there are too many of these electronics being implemented in new cars. If there are entertainment options installed for passenger use, then sure, go for it. But these electronics should not be accessible by the driver. There are already too many distractions on the road to pay attention to while driving.

  2. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 13, 2012

    Clairvoyant–Originally I was going to point out in the blog that these accessories are not on the passenger side of the car. But then it occurred to me that passengers can use their phone, tablet, laptop etc. without worry, so they would be pointless in the first place. It boggles my mind that there actually seems to be a market for cars with this stuff built in. I tend to keep my cars longer than I keep my phones and other devices, so all of this stuff will be obsolete in a few years anyway. I am sure there will be software upgrades, but still…

  3. bolaji ojo
    February 13, 2012

    Barbara, Wait. Remember what the cockpit of a jet plane looks like with all the buttons and blinking lights? That's going to be your next minivan!

  4. bolaji ojo
    February 13, 2012

    Clairvoyant, The obligations of the driver extends to ensuring distractions are limited to passengers but imagine the angst when you are on a long road trip and the family is enjoying the latest movie while you have to keep both hands on the steering. Not to mention my pesonal pet peeve — the folks who read something online and yell “oh my God.” Drivers won't know what exactly the person is screaming about — another distraction.

    It comes down to the driver. OEMs will add whatever they can into vehicles to sell but this doesn't relieve the driver of responsibility behind the wheels.

  5. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 13, 2012

    Bolaji–dashboards are already too complex for me! A family member of mine drives a Beemer and the dashboard tells me I should put the lights on. Still haven't found the light switch in that car.  If it is indeed a switch. It could be a button, a touch pad, or require mind control. Yelling “OK then, turn the (bleep) lights on” didn't work. So voice control is overrated as well

  6. Nemos
    February 13, 2012

    Barbara I really enjoyed your article. You make me to realize how much exposed we are while we are driving. And all of those “hand free” technologies may cause you a destruction of your attention. It is obvious  the entertainment technologies must be improved considering the safety issues.

  7. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 13, 2012

    Thanks, Nemos. In the US, the legislatures will eventually get involved and there will be laws banning some of these things, but I bet you anything someone will challenge it as censorship or something equally absurd. There have already been too many deaths associated with distracted driving.

  8. Ariella
    February 13, 2012

    Distracted driving is a serious problem that can lead to traffic accidents. But you can't legislate everything because then you would have to demand no conversations in the car at all if some people get distracted by what their passengers are saying. In fact, children can be a major distraction, whether they are fighting with each other or merely making demands of their own, but you hardly make it illegal for parents to ferry their children around in the car.

  9. bolaji ojo
    February 13, 2012

    Ariella, I have heard of people being distracted by events outside of the vehicle. Some movies have portrayed scenes of men driving into objects and other vehicles because they were busy staring at a woman, etc. I confess that as a teenage driver, I once bumped (in heavy traffic) into the car in front of me because of a girl driving on another lane. I learned my lesson. Now, I stare eyes straight ahead!


  10. Ariella
    February 13, 2012

    Quite a confession, Bolaji. You're right that the distraction can even come from events outside the car, whether in the form of another driver or just a billboard that is designed to catch your eye. 

  11. Clairvoyant
    February 13, 2012

    Yes, Bolaji, that is a pet peeve of mine as well! It is very startling when a passenger yells something out while driving!

  12. _hm
    February 13, 2012

    Some distracted driving are worse to impaired driving. It is danger to both distracted driver and other party. Please do not get distracted while driving.

  13. Anand
    February 14, 2012

    @Barbara, great post. Its surprising to know that those companies which advice the safety features are themselves providing features which might compromise safety.  I feel most of these companies are forced to provide such features because they don't want to be seen as companies which don't adopt innovation.

  14. Anna Young
    February 14, 2012

    Quite right Ariella. distraction whilst driving is a serious problem and would be practically impossible to legislate on everything. If the car manufacturers are expanding the gadgets on the dash boards to satisfy the market demand, well it'll happen anyway. The onus is on the car driver and the device user to operate these added gadgets with due care. The point is as drivers we have to take responsibility for our actions or inactions.Whether “hands free or not”, Common sense dictates that it is unsafe and unwise to pick up your calls whilst driving or allow yourself to be distracted by a damsel walking or driving past you or whatever – confession of Bolaji (lol).  Yes I agree additional distraction?, hey it's happening anyway – we already have it everywhere, our smartphones, talking in the car etc.

  15. Anand
    February 14, 2012

    I have heard of people being distracted by events outside of the vehicle.

    @Bolaji, true. Many times we get distracted by events outside of the vehicle. One more factor which is the major cause of accidents is  when drivers pull out unaware that that there is a car in their blind spot.  Blind spot accidents are on the rise and that is the reason companies like Volvo and Mercedes have blind spot cameras that flash a warning onto the car mirror if they detect another vehicle.

  16. Anand
    February 14, 2012

    The onus is on the car driver and the device user to operate these added gadgets with due care.

    @Anna, true onus is on the car driver but that doesn't mean manufacturers should provide more and more features which has the potential to distract the attention of the driver. I think the best solution would be to make driving fully automatic. Driver should have little control over the car, and car should automatically drive towards the destination using the GPS navigation.

  17. Adeniji Kayode
    February 14, 2012

    You are right on that. every companies want to be on the cutting edge and in the minds of all consumers if possible and so are ready to fix- in what they feel will make more people to go for their products .

    whose is to the blame in the case of an accident due to distracted driving as a results of these entertaiment devices- the drive r who put his money on a company's product because he thinks that is the best for him or the company who is trying all effort to be at the top and satisfying it consumers

  18. Daniel
    February 14, 2012

    “As long as something is hands-free, it is considered safe”

    Barbara is it right. I don't think so because anything which can divert your attention while driving is not safe. Even its hearing or talking or visualizing or whatever it may be and I think it's not advisable also.

  19. mfbertozzi
    February 14, 2012

    It is a good message _hm; imo, it allow to focus on other point. Once achieved driving licence, it seems most people lose right knowledge of road signs. It is not good, maybe electronics could help people in learning back, no while they are driving, but at home for example, playing a sort of game. What about?

  20. Adeniji Kayode
    February 14, 2012

    Well, that seems good a solution and will still take some time from now but the perfect driving we hope for can not be left to devices alone, man must and will still be involved one way or the other

  21. Adeniji Kayode
    February 14, 2012

    To me, distraction is part of  daily life, we live within it and its so different from one person to the other.what distract you may not distract somebody else, so the point is caution in using all these features in cars, don,t they make life easy some how?

    personal discipline and caution may be one othe the best options

  22. Adeniji Kayode
    February 14, 2012

    Blind spot cameras may not be a bad idea at all, but times you wonder if people make use of their mirrors at all.

  23. Anna Young
    February 14, 2012

    Anandvy, I agree that added features might increase distraction whilst driving. I also understand that many of the added features doesn't make sense. Why would I need to access my Facebook from the dash board of a car when It's already in my mobile device.Privately I disagree with some of the features to be added. However, Car makers will always seek ways to innovate and increase their business potential and I think this is one of the move. Afterall it is a demand and supply issue isn't it? 

    Your suggestion for a fully automatic cars sounds great. However I will still want some sort of control whilst driving.

  24. prabhakar_deosthali
    February 14, 2012

    I believe that the activities like chatting on internet, texting on mobiles and twitting are all passtime activities that one does when one has time to kill and nobody around.

    Why do all these activities when driving.  Driving itself is a good passtime and there is nothing more relaxing than enjoying the roadside scenary while cruising on a highway.

    Why spoil that joy by trying to multitask with things which you can do during a coffe-break -off the road ?

    If the drivers start discouraging the use of such features in the car , the car companies will be automatically be forced to wihdraw such non-sense additions to the car electronics and will focus more on the safety features.

  25. Adeniji Kayode
    February 14, 2012

    I agree with the fact that some of these devices are not too necessary in a car but viewing this from another angle, what of if you are a police officer and you will one way or the other be in on-time communication with the station and some other information.

    Could these devices be making some people to perform better in their professions?

  26. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 14, 2012

    Bolaji–there's another way to ensure you keep your eyes straight ahead when you are driving. It's called marriage 😉

  27. Ariella
    February 14, 2012

    @Barbara that could possibly justify the fact that auto insurance rates tend to be lower for married people than for singles. 

  28. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 14, 2012

    Excellent point!

  29. Jay_Bond
    February 14, 2012

    Ultimately most “hands free” devices are still distracting. I have bluetooth setup in my Pilot. While it is great to be able to talk with out the phone in my hand, if you don't have voice dialing, which isn't always accurate, you still have to interact to call somebody. That is distracting. Streaming music can be distracting if you are always changing channels, but not really more distracting then fiddling with the buttons of a regular radio. To access internet options there needs to be safety measures that say these can only be accessed while the vehicle is in park. Otherwise you will have some fool on their morning commute watching Youtube, talking on the phone while trying to drink coffee and avoid smacking into you. 

  30. elctrnx_lyf
    February 14, 2012

    There is only disadvantages more than any use if these cars are equipped with all this electronic infotainment and advanced control features compared to the present day cars. But at the same time the automobile companies just manufacture what the consumer wants. They are trying to push the technology to more higher level and make the business more profitable.

  31. prabhakar_deosthali
    February 14, 2012


    Professionals like police have been using high tech communication equipment in their vehicles ages before these new developments in consumer cars came in.

    Their  drivers  are specially trained to handle this equipment while driving (sometimes at much faster speeds to catch the culprits.

    We are here talking about the ordinary drivers who can get easily carried away by such distractions and become prone to accidents

  32. Adeniji Kayode
    February 14, 2012

    I agree with you, I cited that example to really creat a picture. Don,t you think we have professionals that require access to information such as the police due to the nature of their work.

    I still feel everything boils down to the drivers and not the company,

  33. Adeniji Kayode
    February 14, 2012

    The question is do you think or expect our cars to go less sophisticated or more equipped with automated features?

  34. Adeniji Kayode
    February 14, 2012

    You made a good point Jay_Bond, I agree with you on that. If the use of these devices could be limited to when the car is not in motion will be a good idea. That is the driver will have to park to use them.

  35. Jay_Bond
    February 14, 2012

    @ Adeniji, exactly. It used to be that if you installed aftermarket radios that played dvd's, they wouldn't play while you were driving because it would distract the driver. Now it seems like they assume a passenger will use these and not be distracting. Very far from the truth.

  36. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 14, 2012

    JayBond: My favorite feature of my beat-up minivan is the radio-channel changer on my steering wheel. Fiddling with the dashboard radio dial is absolutely a distraction.

  37. Jay_Bond
    February 14, 2012

    @Barbara, I would have to agree with you, I love being able to change channels and volume from my steering wheel. It allows for a much easier ride without having to look at the radio, especially if it is dark outside or raining/snowing.

  38. Tim Votapka
    February 14, 2012

    Great write up Barbara. Hands free doesn't mean distraction free, especially if you're fumbling around looking for a good cassette to play in the deck! And for the record, I promise to not play Words with Friends at red lights. It just doesn't work.

  39. Houngbo_Hospice
    February 14, 2012

    Very nice piece, Barb. Hands-free does not qualify as “safe.” If you take your eyes off the road, you are distracted. Distraction is what causes accidents. “. You've said it all. I encourage everybody to post that on their FB wall and tweet it for the world to read. 

  40. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 14, 2012

    @Tim–A cassette?! Argh! I'm old enough to remember casettes…sigh.

  41. dalexander
    February 14, 2012

    Barbara, we all know TMI is “too much information” so I suggest a new acronym, TMT, Too much Tech. I think the Tesla also has side view, rear facing cameras that replace the low tech mirrors. Aside from the 17″ monitor with Internet, now every time a Tesla driver changes lanes, if he/she does not also continue the good practice of glancing over the shoulder prior to changing lanes, the tendency will be to depend on the monitor and if the Tesla driver is using a non Tesla vehicle, the retrained brain may neglect to make that extra glance for safety and potentially cause an accident. We talk about programming tech equipment, but in reality, the tetchy stuff is programming us. I have been programmed to use my iPad for mobile email, my smartphone for stock updates, and I don't leave home without my iPad, smartphone, and car keys because all my friends and professional contacts know they can now reach me wherever and whenever. This is a whole other subject in itself.

  42. Kevin Jackson
    February 14, 2012

    Barbra, I assume you were kidding about reading a book on the steering wheel but, I've seen that many time on my hour long drive to work every day.

    The thing that irritates me most is the thing that I believe happens most often. Traffic is heavy but cruising smoothly at speed, then the guy's cell phone in the car in front of me rings, he immediately knocks five MPH off his speed. When he eventually hangs up he speeds back up. And, most annoyingly, when you go around him while he is talking, he gets mad once he hangs up because now I'm “in his way”.



  43. Tim Votapka
    February 14, 2012

    At least I didn't say 8-track!

  44. prabhakar_deosthali
    February 15, 2012


    I am all for the sophistication in the cars and Electronics is playing a very important role to enrich the driving comfort, security and protection against accidents.

    But when it comes to the features which compromise the safety in terms of diverting the attention of the driver I think  we nned to think twice.

    You cannot put such features in the hands of the driver and then caution him not to use them while driving. So it is better not to have such features ( texting, hands free talking on mobiles etc)  built into the cars. To use such features the driver should be forced to take his car off the road , stop the engine and the do whatever he wants.

  45. Adeniji Kayode
    February 15, 2012

    You are right but that is really a sincere costly asumption.

  46. Adeniji Kayode
    February 15, 2012

    I agree with you on that

  47. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 15, 2012

    @Kevin: I have snuck a glance at a book at red lights (the one that was in front of my now-extinct local Boarders) but quickly gave up after missing the light turning green. (In the Boston area, people either lay on the horn or drive right over you.) That's another pet peeve I have–people on the cell not watching the stop lights. And I agree on the highway cell user–they either slow down or begin to swerve. I have personally found it impossible not to reach for my cell phone when it rings or indicates I have a text message, which is why, unless I am going to be in the car for an extended period of time, I set it on vibrate. So far, I have had no situation that couldn't wait a half hour, or until I pull over, to be resolved (thank goodness.)

  48. Kevin Jackson
    February 15, 2012

    Hi Barbara,

    Reading at a stoplight is one thing, doing it at 70 MPH in traffic is another.

    When putting on make-up and doing the big hair (I'm in Texas) at least a person is looking up (in the twisted-sideways rear view mirror).

    Please, bring on the Google self driving cars!

  49. Eldredge
    February 17, 2012

    Absolutely right – when the cars can self-navigate, the other bells and whistles won't be issues anymore. Not sure I want to be on the read the first time the navigation sysrtem goes haywire though.

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