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Editorial: Hands-free is just the start

Minnesota lawmakers are patting themselves on the back for passing a hands-free cellphone law, which will take effect on Aug. 1. After five years of debate and angst, Minnesota will become the 18th state to have such a driving law.

The hands-free movement appears to be gaining traction in Wisconsin, too, where the current ban applies only to motorists traveling through work zones. River Falls Assembly Republican Shannon Zimmerman said on Monday, April 22, that he is exploring whether to introduce broader legislation similar to Minnesota's.

As Gov. Tim Walz said in a news release: "Minnesotans deserve safe roads and this bipartisan bill helps prevent senseless accidents and improves our public safety."

They do. Wisconsinites, too.

But in truth, a hands-free law is little more than a baby step toward that end. The big one will be to ban phone conversations period for drivers, as the National Transportation Safety Board recommends.

Meanwhile, the National Safety Council says laws like Minnesota's give the false impression that using a hands-free phone is safe. Several dozen research studies and reports from around the world have compared driver performance with handheld and hands-free phones. They clearly show that hands-free use offers no substantial safety benefit.

How can this be? Certainly reducing a driver's temptation to take eyes off the road is a good thing, right? Surely, it's better to have two hands on the wheel?

The problem isn't the number of eyes and hands, it's the number of brain cells.

Cognitive distraction from listening and responding to a disembodied voice contributes to driving impairments — handheld or hands-free conversation, there's little difference. The National Safety Council notes that a driver's response to sudden hazards — another driver's behavior, weather conditions, work zones, animals or objects in the roadway — often is the critical factor between a crash and a nearcrash.

A driver talking to someone not in the car is much less likely to respond to unexpected hazards in time to avoid a crash than someone who is simply focused on driving. As opposed to someone in the car, who at least is providing a second set of eyes on the road.

The reason hands-free devices are so dangerous is that they are distracting, and anything that distracts the eyes, hands or mind from the task at hand is a distraction.

Clearly, the discussion isn't over in Minnesota or Wisconsin. You can, however, finish the conversation in your car regardless of state law. Hang up. Better yet, when you're behind the wheel don't answer or call in the first place.