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Study: Hands-Free Cell Phones Just as Dangerous for Drivers

College student Tony Dhaliwal is about to attempt a very dangerous mission: In the safety of a simulator, he'll try to drive and talk on a cell phone at the same time.

He goes over a shopping list on the phone: "You want bread, cheerios, hamburger, and--"

Just then, the accident happens. Tony Dhaliwal just flunked the test.

"I could have killed this guy. This is my fault," he says. But he also helped drive home an important safety point.

"We've found a clear pattern of impaired driving behavior while you're talking on a cell phone," says Dr. David Strayer.

Strayer, who headed a new University of Utah study on this subject, says talking on a cell phone is far riskier for drivers than, say, listening to the radio. Those using phones miss signals and are slow to react.

Most importantly, the new study revealed, it doesn't matter if the driver is actually holding the cell phone.

"We found that you are just as impaired when you're talking with a hands-free device as when you were using a handheld cell phone," he says.

That suggests that new laws, like one in New York that bans handheld cell phones, won't reduce the risk of accidents.

The distraction, experts say, is the conversation itself. Drivers can't focus on two things at once, so many tend to forget about the road.

"The problem with talking on the phone is that you actually have to think about what you are saying. So it is not simply just listening to somebody as you might listen to music on the radio, which you can sort of put into the background of what you do," says Dr. Jordan Grafman of the National Institutes of Health.

Safety experts expect that the risk will grow: Seventy-five percent of drivers say they routinely use cell phones on the road, where the consequences are real and not just simulated.
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