LIers: Hands-free cellphones have their own distractions

Long Island motorists talk about the dangers cellphones and other devices pose on the road. Videojournalist: Chris Ware (June 12, 2013)

Motorists on Long Island say hands-free cellphone technology has brought new driving distractions, reflecting the results of a national study by the American Automobile Association.

Researchers at the University of Utah found that drivers talking on cellphones had slower reaction times and decreased awareness. The greatest distraction, according to the study released Wednesday, was using a speech-to-text device -- new technology that can send text messages, emails, even Facebook posts on voice command, without pressing a button.

Drivers interviewed Wednesday said that while cellphones can be dangerous distractions, hands-free technology seems to be the safest option available.

"I will be more cautious now, because of that study," said Charlene Russert, 67, of Commack, who added she used a hands-free device on the rare occasions when she talks while driving. "I always thought I was in control of the car . . . but I can understand how, yes, if you're having a conversation with somebody, you're not totally focusing on the road."

In New York, accidents caused by cellphone use have risen by 49.6 percent, to 609 in 2011 from 407 in 2006, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Of those, 92 percent were caused by using a hand-held phone, while only a few cases involved hands-free devices.

"You can't give half of your attention to driving," said Madeline Vazquez, 65, of Seaford, who said she usually avoids talking while driving, even though she has a hands-free device. "Unfortunately, I think young people have trouble doing that. Everything today has become very immediate, so if they get a text, they really feel that it's important for them to . . . respond to it immediately."

Theresa Dorsainvil, 19, of Amityville, said she understands why talk-to-text features are distracting. When she uses the voice-activated feature on her iPhone, "I have to focus on if it's catching what I'm saying correctly," she said.

New York is a major market for the high-end luxury vehicles that now often include talk-to-text technology, said Robert Sinclair, the manager of media relations for AAA New York. As texting has become increasingly common, these cars are a way to appeal to younger drivers, he said.

"The companies are making rolling smartphones," Sinclair added.

Since 2011, state lawmakers have strengthened restrictions on texting-while-driving by allowing police officers to pull over drivers using a mobile device, increasing the maximum fine for a violation and, most recently, suspending the license of young or inexperienced drivers caught texting.

Assemb. Edward Hennessey (D-Medford), who sponsored the teen texting bill, referred to distracted driving as a "growing epidemic among young people" and said he has discussed the issue with his own two teenagers.Assemb. David Gantt (D-Rochester), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, said the study called into question these past decisions, which have allowed, and possibly even encouraged, hands-free devices while cracking down on handheld phones. When asked about future legislation, he said, "We don't want to rush into a judgment again."

Greg Hein, 52, of Massapequa, said he never talks on the phone while driving and doesn't own a hands-free device, but he feels it makes no difference.

"I see people yapping all the time," Hein said. "They have no idea what they're doing when they drive."

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