This post was last updated on 1/31/14.

For years, people (politicians, drivers, the folks at Esurance) have speculated that talking on a cell phone while driving increases accident risk. Granted, it’s a pretty logical assumption — if you’re distracted, you can’t predict or react to hazards as quickly — but do handheld cell phone bans really work?

The short answer is “yes.”

Cell phone ban reduces injuries and fatalities

UC Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center looked at accident-related injuries and fatalities in California 2 years before and 2 years after the 2008 handheld cell phone ban. And what they found was a striking drop in both injuries and fatalities in the 2 years after 2008. Traffic fatalities dropped 22 percent overall, while deaths attributed to handheld cell phone use declined 47 percent. Injuries also dropped more than 50 percent from 7,720 to 3,862.

Currently, only 12 states (and the District of Columbia) ban all drivers from using handheld cell phones behind the wheel. And many of them don’t enforce the law very diligently. California, on the other hand, is one of the strictest enforcers of the ban. Based on the numbers, the ban’s working, but not — as many might assume — thanks solely to hands-free devices.

Hands-free devices still cause distraction

The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that at least one in 4 accidents involves cell phone use. And research shows that any cell phone use while driving — whether it’s handheld or hands-free — impacts drivers’ reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 percent.

Though hands-free devices lessen visual and manual distractions, they don’t do anything to abate cognitive distraction. In other words, drivers using hands-free devices have a tendency to “look” but not “see.”

According to the NSC, the human brain isn’t programmed to multitask, so when we talk and drive, our brain has to constantly switch its focus back and forth between the 2 actions. A study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University looked at brain scans of participants as they drove in a simulator and listened to spoken sentences. They found that activity in the area associated with driving (the parietal area for you science-y types) decreased by 37 percent.

Surprisingly, handheld ban reduces hands-free use as well

If using a hands-free device is still risky, why did the injury and fatality rates decrease so much in California after the ban on handheld devices? It turns out that, following the ban, many people simply stopped using their phones altogether while driving. In a survey commissioned by the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS), 40 percent of California drivers report talking less (while driving) since the handheld cell phone ban. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reported similar findings.

In the same OTS survey, 62 percent of respondents indicated they believe texting and talking are the biggest safety concerns on California roads. Another 84 percent agree that talking on the phone and texting while driving present the most serious distractions. So even though drivers are allowed to talk on their phones using a hands-free device, many choose not to because of the perceived risk. This suggests that the ban has started to change the culture of cell phone use while driving, which could be the underlying reason for the drop in injuries and fatalities.

So, what can we learn from California?

In a nutshell: avoid distracted driving.

Though driving is probably the most potentially dangerous activity we do on a daily basis, many drivers don’t give it the undivided attention it deserves. Regardless of whether talking and/or texting are legal in your state, ask yourself just how important your conversation really is. Is it more important than everyone’s safety? Let’s take a cue from our friends in California. If you need to talk, pull over. That way you can devote all your attention to your conversation without that pesky road distracting you.

What do you think? Are hands-free cell phone users as big a danger on the roads as handheld users? Post a comment on Facebook.

Related links

Check out the cell phone laws in each state
Stay in the know with driving safety facts and tips
See why texting and driving is particularly dangerous
Find out why it’s a bad idea to eat while driving

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about Jessica

During her time as senior copywriter at Esurance, Jessica wrote about everything from automotive trends to insurance tips to driving dogs (it’s a thing!). In her free time, you can find Jessica hiking with her dog (who cannot drive), devouring a good mystery, or very slowly learning Spanish.