Talking to your car could be dangerous

Distraction can result from strictly mental interference such as use of voice-activated technologies

Published: October 26, 2014, 9:05 PM
Updated: November 22, 2021, 4:16 PM

Driver frightened

We're all aware of the dangers resulting from the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. The consequences are so dramatic that distracted driving legislation prohibiting the practice is now widespread across the continent.

But, more and more, evidence is mounting that it's not just the hand-held issue that is the problem. It may be the act of communicating itself.

And it's not just communicating with someone else that can be dangerous. It could be communicating with your car itself.

To side-step the hand-held issue, phone makers and auto manufacturers have widely adopted Bluetooth technology, which wirelessly connects the two, enabling hands-free communication while driving.

Most new cars have Bluetooth at least available, if not standard equipment. And many have gone much further than simple phone use with built-in voice-activated systems that let a driver do everything from sending and receiving texts and e-mails to choosing their music and setting their climate controls – all while keeping their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. In theory at least.

An earlier study conducted for the U.S.-based AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety determined conclusively that hands-free is not risk-free.

Now a follow-up study reinforces that conclusion and expands upon it. Called "Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile II," it bypassed the whole hand-held aspect and focused just on the effects of various forms of voice communication.

It concludes that, while driver distraction may result from visual and manual sources, as when a driver looks away from the road to interact with a device, it can also be caused by strictly cognitive, or mental, interference.

It occurs anytime the driver's attention is diverted from processing the information necessary to operate the vehicle safely. When a driver's attention is diverted to an engaging secondary task, visual scanning is disrupted, prediction of hazards is impaired, decisions for action are altered, and appropriate reactions are delayed.

The key phrase in that sentence is "engaging secondary task." Based on the concept that a task doesn't have to be manual to be engaging, the study addressed the effects of using voice-activated interactive technologies.

To ensure the validity of the study's results, it effectively triplicated the research, performing the same evaluations with the same test subjects in a laboratory setting, in a driving simulator, and in a car in real-world driving.

Understating the significance of its findings, the study concludes that, "some voice-based interactions in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety."

It assessed the level of distraction caused by various interactions using a 1-to-5 rating scale established for the earlier study. It considered 1 to be the mental workload of performing a single, simple task, such as listening to the radio, while doing nothing else. A 5 rating equated to a complex, multi-faceted mind-taxing task.

Ratings for the various tasks were as follows:

> Directing car to do something, such as changing temperature – 1.9
> Listening to a information via a synthetic voice – 2.2
> Responding to a question from voice system – 3.1
> Interacting with a typical voice menu – 3.8
> Interacting with Siri – 4.1

Not surprisingly, given those numbers, the study concluded that, "the mental resources available for driving are inversely related to the cognitive workload of the concurrent secondary task."

In other words, the amount of attention that had to be committed to the voice-communication task subtracted from that available to the driving task. It created driver distraction.

One other key finding was that, while the effects were pretty much the same among the three test regimens in terms of relative rankings, the lab and simulator results were conservative. The magnitude of the effects was markedly greater in real-world driving.

The implications of the study are clear. It's not just the use of hand-held devices that can be distracting to a driver. Engaging with your car via voice-activated technologies may be every bit as distracting – and dangerous.