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Do Hands-Free Cell Phones Really Make Driving Safer?

Cell phone use may boost risk of a crash, but hands-free usage isn't less risky than hand-held use, according to a new study.

Holding a cell phone up to your ear while driving may be no more dangerous than using a Bluetooth headset or other hands-free device, a study finds.

The Governors Highway Safety Association looked at hundreds of scientific reports on distracted driving, covering ten years of research. While cell phone use may increase the risk of a crash, there's "no conclusive evidence on whether hands-free cell phone use is less risky than hand-held use," the group finds.

That may seem counter-intuitive -- after all, with a hands-free device you can at least keep both hands on the wheel -- but in two studies where cell phone use quadrupled the risk of a crash, hands-free phones didn't appear to have any mitigating effect.

One possible explanation: In a pair of commercial driving studies, a much bigger risk was the act of dialing a number on a phone. Using a hands-free device might not free the driver from punching in a number or at least looking at the phone.

It's still possible that a hands-free device could make driving safer, but complicating the issue is a lack of study data on whether people are using their phones at the time of a crash -- cell phone carriers don't release this data for research in the United States -- and the possibility that, at any given time, several distractions may come into play.

Nonetheless, lawmakers in nine states have outlawed hand-held cell phone use while driving, with results that are murky at best. The Highway Loss Data Institute found no reductions in crashes after laws took effect in four states. Bans on texting while driving appear equally fruitless.

As I've said before, the deeper issue is a cultural one, in which distracted driving in its many forms is not frowned upon. The best that auto makers and electronics makers can do is make distraction easier to deal with through hands-free features in cars and on phones -- but even that might not be enough.

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