Are Media Reflecting Research on Hands-Free?

“Jack of all trades, master of none”, though the phrase refers to learning skills, it could as easily summarise today’s psychological opinion: one’s ability at a task decreases as the attention gets divided. Current research on the links between attention and performance have important consequences. Our attention defines our conscious experience — without it, things pass us by without registering in our minds properly. Life as we know it is characterised by us dividing our attention between multiple tasks: watching a small kitchen TV whilst cooking, listening to music whilst exercising, checking Facebook whilst working. This essay will describe a more serious example of attention problems: how driving whilst distracted on a phone can kill (Eady, 2013). This essay looks into whether media draw on lessons learned through scientific research on the subject It will move from the most to the least biased, finally highlighting the original research.

Since the invention of the car phone and then more recently the mobile phone, driving accidents attributed to these have increased (“Unsafe Driving in the Cell Phone Era” n.d.). The solution has been to move from in-car phones to hands-free kits. Companies such as Ford ([Ford Sync advertisement], n.d.) and General Motors ([GM in-vehicle-infotainment advertisement], n.d.) have even focused their advertising on this. This media, in the form of advertising, promote in-car entertainment and streamlining calls and messaging in ‘infotainment’ brackets and they compete to offer attractive packages whilst attempting to conform to safety warnings on distractions.

This advertisement media can only reflect products that have yet to respond to recent research. News media and advice sources should be quicker to respond to more recently published data. When I searched recent news media, the message on in-car entertainment and hands-free was more cautionary (“Even hands-free texting,” 2013). One can now readily find popular news sources quoting both studies and recent law changes (“Mobiles ‘quadruple crash danger’”, 2005).

I found it noticeably rare for pro infotainment articles to surface; when a piece of literature contained pro hands-free information, it was by quoting support from public officials. An example of this, in 2011, when the US National Transportation Safety Board recommended prohibiting all mobile phone use in the car — including hands-free calling. The Head of Transportation, Ray Lahood, opposed this, saying, “the problem is not hands-free” (Read, 2011) suggesting laws would only focus on texting and holding a phone to call whilst driving (Crawley, 2011). The implication that crash data in the US was being primarily caused by phone-in-hand use ignored that the available data was biased in favour of hands-free technology: its impact being lower only due to the recency of the technology). This type of pro hands-free article, which could implicitly show support for the use of hands-free while being not explicit in opinion, was quite rare.

When I tried to deliberately find media that were in favour of hands-free use, I wrote “hands-free driving safe” in a search engine and found many popular news hits. Even these reports highlighted studies conducted by various universities which were not in favour of hands-free systems. One study pointed to hands-free systems being as dangerous as driving while drunk (Edwards, 2013). The Washington Post reported on a MythBusters (a popular TV production) episode where the presenters highlighted that hands-free use was as distracting as phone-in-hand use (Siddiqui, 2015).

This mainstream media coverage has reflected a lot of the scientific research which has supported the condemnation of in-car phone use (Hymon, 2008). The actual scientific studies draw strong parallels with drunk driving (Strayer, Drews, Crouch, 2006). There were also newer and more surprising comparisons between hands-free distraction and phone-in-hand distraction (Ishigami & Klein, 2009). The phenomenon is so established it even features in current university issue Introductory Psychology text books (Gazzaniga, Heatherton, Halpern 2016; Zimbardo, Johnson, McCann 2012) which say, “using a hands-free phone may be just as dangerous as talking while holding a phone” (Gazzaniga et al., 2016, p. 134).

In light of such scientific consensus, some European Governments now use the media to run public health ads that copy the shock value warnings of drink-driving: anti phone conversation messages roll regularly in the UK in a bid to educate from this research and cut traffic collisions (Think!, 2007).

The message seems almost unanimous: the research, the media, and even the law makers are warning about hands-free’s effect on driver’s attention. Although perhaps the hands-free and phone-in-hand research of Ishigami and Klein (2009) should actually lead one to ask whether legislation can even be written on hands-free systems — if the very act of holding a conversation in a car over the phone is dangerous, could this extend to conversations with people in the car also, or driving with loud or distracting children? Whatever the law makers end up debating, and beyond the biased advertisements from the big car companies, it seems media have managed to pay attention and represent the research being done. When it comes to in-car phone use, the message is clear: “kill the conversation” (Think!, 2007).


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Eady, P. (2013, November 4). Shocking video: Death crash driver looks at porn on his phone as he ploughs into police cars at 65mph. Retrieved from

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[Ford Sync advertisement] (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2015, from

Gazzaniga M, Heatherton T, Halpern D (2016) Consciousness. In S.L. Snavely (Ed.) Psychological Science 5th ed. (pp. 134). New York: W.W.Norton & Company

[GM in-vehicle-infotainment advertisement] (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2015, from

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Read, R. (2011, December 22). Ray LaHood Say Hands-Free Calls Are A-Okay, Throws NTSB Under Bus. Retrieved from

Siddiqui, F. (2015, August 20). Is hands-free cellphone use really safer for driving? We asked MythBusters. Retrieved from

Strayer D.L., Drews F.A., Crouch D.J. (2006 Summer). A comparison of the cell phone driver and the drunk driver. Human factors, 48(2), 381–91

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Zimbardo P.G., Johnson R.L., McCann V. (2012), States of Consciousness. In C. Campanella (Ed.) Psychology Core Concepts 7th ed. (pp. 325). New Jersey: Pearson Education 40�x ��v�/�