The percentage of drivers talking on handheld phones decreased from 2.9% in 2019 to 2.6% in 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). However, it’s more difficult to determine how many motorists are making Bluetooth-enabled hands-free phone calls while behind the wheel.
A recent report from Progressive points to Bluetooth and other new car technologies that may be convenient but aren’t necessarily safe. In fact, some new tech features can make drivers less safe.
Consider, for example, data from Progressive's Snapshot program, which uses an app or plug-in device to personalize car insurance rates based on driving habits. It found that 99% of enrolled drivers used their phone at least once while driving in 2020. The upshot: If studies show that only a small percentage of drivers are using handheld phones, many of them were likely making calls using hands-free technology.
That’s a problem, experts say, because even hands-free calls are a form of cognitive distracted driving.
Dr. David Strayer, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah who runs the Applied Cognition Lab and conducts distracted driving research for AAA, says a phone call is a phone call, and it takes the same amount of mental effort whether or not it’s hands-free.
But Bluetooth isn’t the only culprit that’s adding to distracted driving. For example, head-up display (HUD) systems project information, like speed and fuel, onto the windshield. Manufacturers claim that this tech reduces distraction and keeps drivers' eyes on the road.
Strayer says it depends on what's being displayed. Collision or blind-spot warnings about some potential hazard are useful. But the systems also allow for texts to pop up — which is just a dangerous distraction.
Finally, in-vehicle infotainment systems are flashier — and potentially more hazardous — than ever. These elaborate in-dash systems allow drivers to access navigation maps and phone operations. They also replace the knobs and dials used for radios, climate control, and other car features. In a vehicle with a touchscreen, changing the radio station or turning up the A/C can require more movements than just the turn of a knob.
Some 3,142 people lost their lives to distracted driving on the nation’s roadways in 2019 alone, according to NHTSA.