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Hands-free is not risk-free

Study shows voice-activated technologies dangerously undermine driver attention

Published: June 19, 2013, 2:00 PM
Updated: October 5, 2014, 8:09 PM

Hands-free Cell Phone

Hands-free in-car technologies might make it easier for drivers to text, talk on the phone, or use Facebook while they drive but dangerous mental distractions still exist, even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.

Those are the findings from new research on distracted driving, conducted for the U.S.-based AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which is said to be the most comprehensive study of its kind to look at the mental distraction of drivers.

The research found that as mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues, potentially resulting in them not seeing items right in front of them, including stop signs and pedestrians.

Consequently, the AAA with is appealing to the public not to use these voice-to-text features while their vehicle is in motion.

"There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies," said AAA president and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet, citing a predicted five-fold increase in infotainment systems in new vehicles by 2018.

"It's time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free," he proclaimed.

Extensive study

The study was conducted by a research team at the University of Utah, which measured brainwaves, eye movement and other metrics to assess what happens to drivers' mental workload when they attempt to do multiple things at once.

Drivers engaged in common tasks, from listening to an audio book or talking on the phone to listening and responding to voice-activated e-mails while behind the wheel.

Based on the results, researchers rated the levels of mental distraction drivers experienced while performing each of the tasks:

> Tasks such as listening to the radio ranked as a category "1" level of distraction or a minimal risk.

> Talking on a cell-phone, both handheld and hands-free, resulted in a "2" or a moderate risk.

> Listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features increased mental workload and distraction levels of the drivers to a "3" rating or one of extensive risk.

"These findings reinforce previous research that hands-free is not risk-free," said AAA Foundation president and CEO Peter Kissinger.

"Increased mental workload and cognitive distractions can lead to a type of tunnel vision or inattention blindness where motorists don't see potential hazards right in front of them," he added.

The AAA is using the findings to promote dialogue with policy makers, safety advocates and industry to ensure that these emerging in-vehicle technologies won't lead to unintentional compromises in public safety.

"These increasingly common voice-driven, in-vehicle technologies should be limited to use for just core driving tasks unless the activity results in no significant driver distraction," said Darbelnet.