Do Hands-Free Laws Really Make Our Highways More Safe?

Remember when you were a kid, and you got bored with riding a bicycle the traditional way – so you readjusted your balance and took your hands off the handlebars? And then you pedaled by your mother yelling, “Look, Ma! No hands!”

And your mother would scream something memorable like, “If you fall and break both your legs, don’t come running to me!”

Now, since you’re all grown up, there’s no one to make sure that you keep both hands where they’re supposed to be while driving … except for the government.

Lawmakers in most U.S. states have passed legislation restricting or outlawing the use of handheld cellphones while driving a motor vehicle. The laws are intended to reduce the number of auto accidents due to distracted driving.

However, some states have inserted language into these laws allowing drivers to use mobile devices as long they operate in “hands-free” mode. In other words, drivers are still prohibited from holding a phone to their ear or punching the keys on it. However, they can take calls and talk on Bluetooth earpieces, and also make calls using equipment in the vehicle’s console or dashboard if it is outfitted accordingly.

But now the question is this: do handheld devices really make a difference in terms of distracted driving accidents?

Since most of these cellphone laws have only been around for the last few years, there really isn’t enough data available to reach a definite conclusion. But here’s what we know so far.

Two states – California and Connecticut – enacted laws back in 2008 prohibiting handheld cellphone usage, but allowing drivers to employ hands-free devices to communicate while on the road. According to statistics compiled by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, roadway fatalities in 2009 decreased in both states from 2008. In Connecticut, traffic fatalities fell by 5.6% from one year to the next, while similar incidents plunged 10.3% in California over that timeframe. It isn’t accurate to assume that the entire decrease in either state was due to hands-free devices – but it’s quite possible that these laws did make a difference.

Only after more studies are conducted and more data is gathered will we know for sure whether hands-free cellphones cut down on the odds of getting into an accident. Until then, if you’re in a state which bans handheld mobile devices while driving, and you happen to be talking on a hands-free communications device as you drive by someone in law enforcement, feel free to shout, “Look, officer! No hands!”

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