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NIR shows that driving and hands-free talking lead to spike in errors

A pilot study by Yagesh Bhambhani, a professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, and his graduate student Mayank Rehani, showed that drivers who talk using a hands-free cellular device made significantly more driving errors—such as crossing the centre line, speeding and changing lanes without signalling—compared with just driving alone. The jump in errors also corresponded with a spike in heart rate and brain activity.

“It is commonplace knowledge, but for some reason it is not getting into the public conscience that the safest thing to do while driving is to focus on the road,” said Rehani, who completed the research for his master’s thesis in rehabilitation science at the University of Alberta.

The researchers became interested in the topic in 2009 shortly after Alberta introduced legislation that banned the use of handheld cellphones while driving but not hands-free devices. In this study, they used near infrared spectroscopy to study the brain activity of 26 participants who completed a driving course using the Virage VS500M driving simulator at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.

Near infrared spectroscopy allows researchers to examine real-time changes in brain activity in the left prefrontal lobe. Participants were first tested in a control condition, using the simulator to drive in city street conditions using no telecommunications device. They were tested again while talking on a hands-free device during two-minute conversations that avoided emotionally charged topics.

The research team found there was a significant increase in brain activity while talking on a hands-free device compared with the control condition. A majority of participants showed a significant increase in oxyhaemoglobin in the brain, with a simultaneous drop in deoxyhaemoglobin—a sign of enhanced neuronal activation during hands-free telecommunication.

“The findings also indicated that blood flow to the brain is significantly increased during hands-free telecommunication in order to meet the oxygen demands of the neurons under the ‘distracted’ condition,” said Bhambhani, who works in the Department of Occupational Therapy.

He added the results did not reveal a significant relationship between enhanced neuronal activation and the increase in the number of driving errors, most likely because the NIR spectroscopy measurements were recorded from a single site, the prefrontal lobe.

The findings are considered novel on a topic that is receiving considerable attention by policy-makers globally. Rehani’s contribution to the project earned him the 2013 Alberta Rehabilitation Award for Innovation in Rehabilitation (Student).

The researchers note this is a preliminary study and hope that it can be part of a larger body of literature that can help inform policy-makers about the safety implications of using hands-free devices while driving.

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