The Truth About Hands-Free Technology

Jun 14, 2013

Although hands-free technologies might make it easier for motorists to text, talk on the phone or use social media while driving, dangerous mental distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.

According to new findings from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, mental workload and distractions can slow down reaction times. As a result, brain function is compromised; drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues such as stop signs and pedestrians.

With a predicted five-fold increase in infotainment systems in new vehicles by 2018, AAA is calling for action in response to the research.

“There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies,” said Robert L. Darbelnet, AAA president and CEO. “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.”

Cognitive distraction expert Dr. David Strayer and his research team at the University of Utah measured brainwaves, eye movement and other metrics to assess what happens to drivers’ mental workload when they attempt to do multiple things at once.

The research team used research protocols borrowed from aviation psychology and a variety of performance metric to rate the levels of mental distraction drivers experienced while performing common tasks behind the wheel, such as listening to an audio book, talking on the phone or responding to voice-activated emails.

The levels of mental distraction were interpreted on a scale similar to the Saffir-Simpson scale used for hurricanes, according to AAA. While listening to the radio ranked as a “Category One” level of distraction (minimal risk) and talking on a cellphone resulted in a “Category Two” level (moderate risk), listening or responding to in-vehicle or voice-activated vehicle features resulted in a “Category Three” rating (extensive risk).

“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,” said Peter Kissinger, AAA Foundation president and CEO.

AAA said it urges the automotive and electronics industries to explore limiting the use of voice-activated technology to core driving-related activities; disabling certain functionalities of voice-to-text technologies; and educating vehicle owners about responsible use and safety risks of in-vehicle technology.

“This study constitutes the most in-depth analysis to date of mental distractions behind the wheel,” Darbelnet said. “AAA is hopeful that it will serve as a stepping stone toward working in collaboration with automakers to promote our shared goal of improving safety for all drivers.  Specifically, 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.”

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