This year, the Maine Legislature wrestled with what is becoming a growing crisis in Maine: texting and driving.

The police are issuing thousands of tickets a year for violations of Maine’s “hands-free driving” law, which prohibits the use of handheld electronic devices while driving. Those of us who drive don’t need the police to tell us how pervasive this problem is. If you look over at other drivers on the highway, you’ll notice that a startling number of them are on their phones.

The Judiciary Committee recently rejected a bill that would have stiffened the penalty for texting and driving. I thought that was unfortunate. Use of a handheld phone while driving is extraordinarily dangerous, and is likely one of the reasons that catastrophic motor vehicle accidents are on the rise. Indeed, my colleague Meryl Poulin testified in favor of that bill, noting that we, as personal injury lawyers, see the horrific consequences of drivers’ inability to put their phones down while on the road.

Across the country, there is a growing recognition that the use of handheld phones while driving is profoundly dangerous. But the national discussion about texting and driving also obfuscates a more difficult and vexing truth: The available data suggest that using your phone “responsibly” – speaking on your phone using Bluetooth – isn’t great either.

We have known this for a while now.

In 2009, two researchers from Dalhousie University published an article in the Journal of Safety Research, “Is a hands-free phone safety than a handheld phone?” The paper noted that hands-free phones have been shown to distract drivers, causing them to have a delayed response time and swerve more on the road. More troublingly, it postulated that, because driving using a handheld phone tends to slow down more than drivers talking on hands-free phones, the latter “could be more dangerous than (the use of hand-held phones) in some situations.”


Interestingly, the paper points to research suggesting that conversations between a driver and passengers are less likely to result in a dangerous driver distraction, in part because the driver and passenger “can develop the same situational awareness … there is less social pressure to remain engaged with a passenger than with a phone conversant: The passenger will realize that the demands of driving have caused a cessation of the conversation, while the phone conversant will perceive such a cessation as rude.”

The National Safety Council, one of America’s leading nonprofit safety advocates, has also been outspoken about the risks of driving while on the phone, even when the phone is hands-free. The NSC has also noted that, while the vast majority of Americans now support laws banning handheld phones while driving, far fewer support bans on the use of hands-free phones.

So why do we all assume that the use of hands-free phones in the car is safe? The answer seems obvious: because car companies, insurance companies and governmental agencies keep suggesting that is so, either by explicitly championing the advent of hands-free phones; or by warning of the dangers of handheld phone use, thereby implicitly suggesting that hands-free phone use is perfectly fine; or simply by using marketing to normalize the use of hands-free technology. Consider, for example, the recent (very good) ad for the Chevy Bolt, which follows a young man in his Bolt speaking on his phone for hours while talking to his loving but garrulous mom.

For those readers who find this piece preachy, I should make clear that I am no saint when it comes to the use of my phone in the car. And again, I am not suggesting that we should stop worrying about the use of handheld phones by drivers. Only that we need to be careful about suggesting that hands-free phone use is a panacea. It is, to my mind, a similar line we need to walk as we do with smoking and vaping. Perhaps vaping is healthier than smoking, but it isn’t healthy. And we need to ask consumers to keep those two ideas in their heads at the same time.

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