Drivers in Austin are prohibited from using a handheld electronic device while operating a motor vehicle. In fact, since the city’s hands-free ordinance went into effect in 2015, the Austin Police Department has issued about 5,000 tickets for distracted-driving violations.

While the ban will undoubtedly improve road safety, there is still a misunderstanding among drivers that talking on a hands-free device is safer than using a handheld phone.

Studies have shown that listening and talking on a hands-free device can be just as dangerous as texting while driving.

In order to safely drive a vehicle, you need your visual, manual and cognitive abilities. If you text and drive, then your visual, manual and cognitive faculties are compromised, putting you and others at risk.

Austin’s hands-free ordinance is aimed at preventing visual and manual distraction, but the ban doesn’t address cognitive distraction caused by talking and listening on a hands-free device. In fact, the National Safety Council has compiled more than 30 studies showing that hands-free phones provide no major safety benefit to drivers.

Neurological research reveals the problem.

Brain researchers have shown that, despite our cultural emphasis on multi-tasking and efficiency, the brain does not actually multi-task. Our brains can switch from one task to another within a given time frame, but the truth is that our brains switch attention between tasks.

Listening on a phone, talking on a phone, and paying attention to road conditions are three separate cognitive tasks, and scientists have shown that a person’s driving ability is impaired when the brain has to switch from one of these tasks to another.

One study even estimated that people talking on cell phones while driving “look at” but don’t “see” up to 50 percent of their driving environment. The researchers refer to this phenomenon as “inattention blindness,” something akin to tunnel vision.

Ongoing driver education is needed to prevent distracted driving in all of its forms.

If a driver using a hands-free device causes an accident, then the victim of the accident may be entitled to compensation for injuries. To prevent these kinds of crashes from happening, it is crucial to raise awareness about the dangers of every sort of distracted driving, including use of hands-free devices behind the wheel.

To learn more about what to do after a motor vehicle accident in Texas, please see The Levine Law Firm’s overview of texting while driving.