In this week's issue

Hands-free and driving don’t mix

Experts say use of hands-free to take or make a call while driving causes ‘attentional blindness’

  • By Jay B. Hilotin, Chief Reporter
  • Published: 21:15 January 23, 2013

Distracted driving
  • Image Credit: Voisin/Phanie / Rex Features
  • Attention deficit: Using hands-free while driving can cause ‘attentional blindness’ say experts

DUBAI The use of hands-free sets could lead to “attentional blindness” among drivers and many accidents, said a leading UAE psychologist.

Dr Taha Amir, UAE University professor of psychology, said there is a “mistaken belief” that the use of hands-free mobile phones while driving reduces road mishaps compared to using handheld mobile phones.

In the latest issue of The UAE Psychologist, a bi-annual newsletter, he cited research which shows that conversing with a hands-free mobile phone is a cause of “significant distraction” and is much more distracting than conversing with a fellow passenger.

Attentional blindness is defined as a result of a process that consumes significantly more “attentional resources” than deciphering natural sounds received in a face-to-face conversation.

“Some people think that since using hands-free does not engage sight, one can focus on the road while using it. But this is not true. Our research shows that the cause of distraction is the process of deciphering degraded sound conveyed over the mobile phone.”

Dr Amir said their experimental study was run in the psychology lab of the UAE University in Al Ain and involved 244 male and female subjects (aged 19 to 60). Their conclusion: Using hands-free mobile while driving results in “attention trade-off”, with potentially disastrous consequences.

“This study shows that attention is a limited capacity reservoir,” Dr Amir said. “When two tasks, like driving and conversing over the phone, compete for attentional resources, they ‘trade-off’. If one takes more, the other takes less,” he explained.

Dr Amir told XPRESS that even a hands-free conversation while driving must be totally avoided “because engaging in a conversation on a mobile phone while operating a vehicle is very risky. It is good that there is a law against this practice. But the media should raise public awareness.”

Dr Amir was the study’s principal investigator, and co-authored by Mohammad Abdel Hafez, of UAEU’s Department of Electrical Engineering, and Kamal Sharaf Ali, of the Computer Engineering Department of the University of Southern Mississippi. The research was funded by UAE University Research Section.

The study’s results were also presented at the annual convention of the International Council of Psychologists in Brazil and published by the council’s UK journal.

Dr Amir said that sounds carried over wireless telephones are severely degraded as they go though many stages of manipulation before being transmitted.

“Sound [transmitted over phone networks] is sampled. These samples are converted to a digital stream of ones and zeros. This stream of bits is then modulated to be squeezed into a very narrow frequency slice to be transmitted.”

He said that the degradation of the sounds conveyed through phones is obvious when somebody tries to spell a word over the phone. For example, if somebody wanted to spell the word “tide” over the phone, the person would say tango for the letter ‘T’, India for the letter ‘I’, delta for the letter ‘D’, and echo for the letter ‘E’.

“Obviously the person does not need to do this if he is talking with the other person face to face,” he said.

In 2011 a UAE University survey of 576 young drivers revealed two-thirds of them had been involved in one or more accidents. More than one in four said they suffered injuries in car accidents.

That study, also spearheaded by Dr Amir with colleague Dr Shamma Al Falasy, cited peer pressure as the reason for the alarming number of UAE car accidents, injuries and fatalities among young drivers.

Making sense of driving
  • Driving requires both sensation and perception. Sensation is registering a signal (image, sound, chemical, etc) in specialised neurons or nerve cells in a sense organ (the eye, ear, nose, etc). Registering a light signal in the neurons of the eye is not enough for “seeing” as the signal needs to be perceived — organised and interpreted — to be meaningful and useable.”
  • For perception to take place, attentional resources are needed. This, however, will not be available if this person is not only engaged in a phone conversation but is also deciphering degraded sounds. Since this process consumes a lot of a person’s attentional resources, it leaves very little 
for the road ahead.

Comments (12)

Your comments
  1. Added 16:02 January 24, 2013

    Very true, But if the conversation is not that serious enough one can train the mind to focus on driving without diverting complete attention and talk. However safty of others also should be taken into consideration than ending up in trouble.

    Sam Eapen, Cochin, India

  2. Added 15:11 January 24, 2013

    If a conversation on phones is a distraction, so the routine conversations between driver and passengers can also be included in same category. Moreover, being physically present at same place adds to the distraction, So, we need to broaden the scope of items covered as distractionss, educate drivers and passengers - as well as people on-phone with someone driving - about reducing the distractions for a driver.

    Ahmed, Abu Dhabi, Pakistan

  3. Added 10:29 January 24, 2013


    kane, dubai, Philippines

  4. Added 10:12 January 24, 2013

    Absolutly true article....thanks

    Noushad, Abu dhabi, United Arab Emirates

  5. Added 09:45 January 24, 2013

    Very True, long and serious conversations on phone while driving causes` lack of attention. People should avoid long conversation on phone while driving by alerting the caller that I am driving and will get back to you after reaching destination, if the call is important, park the car at the side and carry on. This public and road users own responsibility, they should consider this as road hazzard. I guess Police can not do anything about it, can they?

    SYED J. Huq, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  6. Added 09:40 January 24, 2013

    Its right - our company has already banned employees using hands free devices while driving. Its a safety driving behaviour policy they have introduced.

    Anas, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  7. Added 09:07 January 24, 2013

    Really a good research, this should be conveyed to all drivers, the drivers must give preference to drive the vehicle and not mobile phone. Accident-free Drive is Safe to you and others' First Drive Safe to Reach the Destination, and we can keep our mobiles in silent mode and you can attend your mobile calls, later. Traffic rules violators must be punished for using mobile while on drive, at least one week car must be seized with fine. Note: I travel to office daily from Dubai to Abu dhabi,

    G.Selvam, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  8. Added 08:16 January 24, 2013

    While driving phone should be used as a short message conversation, not as big story conversation.

    Muhammad Irfan, Dubai, Pakistan

  9. Added 08:14 January 24, 2013

    IF, Buts, probably, Could, May, may not - all these words are part and parcel of research findings. Even listening to music, talking to the fellow passenger, thinking about the family, office, in short any activity is a distraction to the brain. As well, engrossed in concentrated driving will soon tend to feel sleepy. Nevertheless, almost every accident could be avoided if the person behind the wheel is gentle and sensible rather than a ruthless human being.

    mahesh, abu dhabi, United Arab Emirates

  10. Added 06:11 January 24, 2013

    This is absolutely I myself have experienced this. I always use hands free whenever I get a call on my mobile while driving, however after disconnecting the call, I often wonder how on earth I have reached the particular spot at that moment of driving, which means although I had driven through a street and crossed it safely, my mind never reads or records it. This has been the case with many of my friends too. I think it's high time we must stop using mobile phones while driving and let's be the no 1 in the world to ban ''usage of mobile' while driving'' in the world. Million thanks to Dr.Amir.

    PRV, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

  11. View more comments