Gridlock Guy: Why being hands-free can still be so distracting

Nearly two months into the new Hands-Free Georgia Act, the new requirements are becoming a way of life. Some metrics show that traffic crashes have decreased and awareness of the law seems pervading. But another side of the coin exists when trying to both comply with the new rules and still enjoy the conveniences from our mobile devices. Following the rules can sometimes become another distraction behind the wheel.

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Let me switch into first-person here. I recently decided to make my 2007 Buick Rendezvous as hands-free as possible. I bought a window mount to hold the phone in a safe place. I could then use it in a limited way to make phone calls and use GPS, as the law allows. Then I bought a $40 FM-Bluetooth transmitter that powers through the car’s cigarette lighter. This then completely made my phone hands-free. But using it even in this manner is distracting.

FM transmitters are far from foolproof. The signal sometimes wavers, as it competes with stations on the nearby bandwidths. The device is supposed to interact with the phone’s voice commands, so I press a button on the transmitter to talk into the phone — but that doesn’t always work. Other hands-free quirks have arisen.

Answering and making calls doesn’t operate quite as well as using the phone alone. Sometimes the caller on the other line doesn’t hear me or I forget to crank the volume up on the radio. All phone audio (calls, GPS, streaming audio) operates through the FM radio, but I have to crank that volume very high to hear it. That means switching from the regular radio to phone audio is quite harsh — and distracting.

The mount on the windshield is almost completely a blessing and is certainly safer than leaving my phone on the center console. But even the mount became a distraction the one time that I was adjusting the phone and it came undone. Then, against even my own advice to myself, I became determined — as I drove up I-85 — to try to fix it. Why would I do something so stupid? Because we tend to justify our bad decisions in the moment. In case you’re wondering, I did not successfully repair the mount until I parked.

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One could argue that my attempts to become safer behind the wheel have made my behaviors even more dangerous. Really, that isn’t true. These innovations have made using the legal functions on my phone far safer than any risks I have incurred. But the convenience of having my incoming text and email suddenly at eye level makes the temptation far greater to interact with them. Even seeing the notifications themselves is distracting.

In my comfort blanket of becoming hands-free, I justify bending the rules. My human nature leads me to thinking that briefly answering that text at a light or when I am in stopped traffic is okay — because my phone not in my hands. I think that trying to adjust and setup the Bluetooth transmitter behind the wheel is justified, because I eventually will be safer. Outside of any laws, all of these things are indisputably distracting.

Your car may have the latest technology. Most mobile device conveniences are allowed through an in-car dash screen. But AAA has been extremely clear about how distracting those systems are. No matter the modern conveniences and as long as the wheel is in our hands, driving is our number one responsibility. I have written tirelessly about the new hands-free law, but I understand the struggle and temptations of our technology. I am re-committing myself to fasting as much as possible from my phone while I drive, despite my new safeguards that should help me use it more.

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