Talking with U of M

Talking roadway safety and the new hands-free law with U of M

Person driving
Photo by Peter Fazekas from Pexels.

On August 1, the hands-free bill passed this spring will become law in the state of Minnesota. According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, the new law allows a driver to use their cell phone to make calls, text, listen to music or podcasts, and get directions, but only by voice commands or single-touch activation without holding the phone. 

Nichole Morris, director of the HumanFIRST Lab at the University of Minnesota, speaks about what it means for a vehicle to be hands-free, what defines distracted driving and how drivers can drive hands-free. 

Q: What does it mean to drive hands-free?

Dr. Morris: Hands-free is a general term to describe interacting with your phone while driving that does not involve holding or manually interacting with the phone for purposes of dialing, talking, or any other type of input or engagement. Depending on the combination of the driver’s phone and vehicle, the hands-free phone use could be through vehicle manufacturer’s onboard features, such as microphones, speech recognition software, speakers, and steering wheel buttons; or through aftermarket products, such as headsets or Bluetooth adapters. All of these features may help to reduce, but not completely eliminate, the amount of physical and visual engagement drivers have with their phones while driving. 

Q: How can individuals with older vehicles retrofit them to be hands-free?

Dr. Morris: There are three main methods to retrofit your car to enable you to interact with your phone hands-free — with a single push of a button. 

The first — but perhaps more expensive method — is to upgrade your vehicle radio to one with Bluetooth capabilities. Installing a Bluetooth-enabled, after-market radio will help get you closer to an integrated system made by a vehicle manufacturer and is likely to be more reliable than other methods. 

Second, you can purchase a Bluetooth car kit or adapter to sync with your smartphone that may have its own speaker system or transmit to your radio. These products tend to be inexpensive and should not require professional installation. However, be sure to check for compatibility with your phone operating system and your vehicle input options. 

Third, there are vehicle-specific adapters that may allow you to add Bluetooth and microphones to your existing stereo system. This will have additional costs, including installation. 

There are secondary methods to control your phone through voice activation or one-touch, such as smart watches or single earbud headphones that have a microphone that do not require drivers to retrofit their vehicle. Remember that these fall under the same restrictions under the law and cannot be used for reading texts or manually inputting information. 

The most important thing with any retrofitting method is to install and practice using your new system before you begin driving. 

Q: How does having a hands-free vehicle help with decreasing distracted driving?

Dr. Morris: The best way to reduce the risk of phone-related distracted driving is to start any processes (e.g., launching navigation) before you leave; wait until you reach your destination to return messages; pull over to a safe location to use your phone; and employ “do not disturb” functions to block texts from coming in while you drive. 

Drivers should always treat the primary task of driving as one that demands all of their mind, eyes and hands. If you must use your phone while driving, hands-free driving is safer than manually interacting with your phone. This is because tasks that involve taking your eyes and hands away from driving increases crash risk and can have fatal consequences. 

Research studies have linked some of the largest crash risks to tasks like texting while driving or reaching for an item in the vehicle while driving. In contrast, tasks like simply talking on the phone (not including dialing) or conversing with passengers are considered less risky tasks while driving. Drivers can use one-button push, hands-free technology to limit the amount of time they may look away from the road at their phones and limit dangerous reaching to grab their phone in the vehicle. Using voice-activated texting, which is allowed under the new hands-free law, frequently requires visual verification and corrections of what had been said to the phone — which is still a dangerous activity that I cannot recommend. 

I encourage drivers to go “old school” and talk to their friends and family through Bluetooth or onboard features while driving instead of voice-activated texting. 

Q: How can individuals with hands-free vehicles further decrease their distracted habits while driving? 

Dr. Morris: We tend to hear discussions about distracted driving and texting while driving as interchangeable terms, but distracted driving includes a wide variety of behaviors such as eating, grooming and daydreaming. Although reaching for an object that has fallen to the floor may seem innocuous, it can take your eyes and hands away from driving for long enough that you may wind up in a fatal collision or run-off-the-road crash. Pull over to retrieve any objects that you cannot reach without looking or moving your torso. 

Passengers can also impose a distraction to drivers. Drivers should firmly let passengers know when they are feeling stressed or overwhelmed with their driving environment and that they need silence to focus. Due to the pronounced risks, I encourage parents to prohibit their teen drivers from having any teen passengers in their vehicle for the first year of independent driving, longer than what is required by Minnesota’s teen driver laws

Daydreaming or getting lost in thought may be one of the hardest distracted behaviors to control. I encourage drivers to be more engaged in scanning their environment to help keep their mind busy and fully focused on driving. I like to count the number of pedestrians and bicyclists I see in my commute to help be sure I’m always looking for them and quiet the part of my brain that gets antsy for other things to do.

Q: What are you doing to further the research in distracted driving and multi-sensory perception?

Dr. Morris: The HumanFIRST Laboratory is engaged in a variety of research to help reduce serious injury and fatal crashes. Recently, we have worked in the city of Saint Paul to help spread awareness of pedestrian safety and use engineering techniques to help drivers notice pedestrians sooner at crosswalks and safely stop for them. Our research team has worked to leverage smartphones to become safety tools rather than distracting devices. We have done this recently in testing ways to utilize push warnings to drivers about slowing down for blind curves ahead in the roadway, approaching work zones and related hazards, and notifying teens and older drivers about exceeding the speed limit, among other risky driving behaviors. 

We have worked with the state of Minnesota to help improve the process and interface of the crash report so that law enforcement officers are better able to document their observations at the scene of a crash. This helps us know when distraction, alcohol, speeding or other factors contributed to the crash. Our mission at the HumanFIRST Lab is to improve transportation throughout the entire system, including driver behavior, in-vehicle technology, infrastructure, and our use of crash data. All of this is aimed at not only helping to reduce smartphone-related distracted driving crashes, but to help address the many other issues that devastate Minnesota families when we lose our loved ones on the road. 

Nichole Morris is the director of the HumanFIRST Lab in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and a Center for Transportation Studies scholar. Her areas of expertise are in multi-sensory perception and the intersection of transportation as it relates to aging, judgment and decision making, usability and human factors. Her most recent research is related to snow plow lane guidance systems, drowsy driving detection, teen and older drivers’ use of in-vehicle coaching systems, and rural intersection sight distances. In the past year, Morris has partnered with the city of Saint Paul about improving pedestrian safety through education, engineering, and enforcement and has spoken to the media extensively about the success of this research.  

About “Talking...with U of M” 
“Talking...with U of M” is a resource whereby University of Minnesota faculty answer questions on current and other topics of general interest. Feel free to republish this content. If you would like to schedule an interview with the faculty member or have topics you’d like the University of Minnesota to explore for future “Talking...with U of M,” please contact University Public Relations at [email protected].

Media Contacts

Main Line

University Public Relations