Hands-free doesn’t mean safety on the road

The Associated PressJune 12, 2013 

— Dashboard technology that lets drivers text and email with voice commands – marketed as a safer alternative – actually is more distracting than simply talking on a cellphone, a new AAA study found.

Automakers have been trying to excite new-car buyers, especially younger ones, with dashboard infotainment systems that let drivers use voice commands to do things like turning on windshield wipers, posting Facebook messages or ordering pizza. The pitch has been that hands-free devices are safer because they enable drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.

But talking on a hands-free phone isn’t significantly safer for drivers than talking on a hand-held phone, and using hands-free devices that translate speech into text is the most distracting of all, researchers reported in a study released Wednesday. Speech-to-text systems that enable drivers to send, scroll through, or delete email and text messages required greater concentration by drivers than other potentially distracting activities examined in the study like talking on the phone, talking to a passenger, listening to a book on tape or listening to the radio.

The greater the concentration required to perform a task, the more likely a driver is to develop what researchers call “tunnel vision” or “inattention blindness.” Drivers will stop scanning the roadway or ignore their side and rearview mirrors. Instead, they look straight ahead, but fail to see what’s in front of them, like red lights and pedestrians.

“People aren’t seeing what they need to see to drive. That’s the scariest part to me,” said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the group’s safety research arm. “Police accident investigative reports are filled with comments like the ‘looked, but did not see.’ That’s what drivers tell them. We used to think they were lying, but now we know that’s actually true.”

There are about 9 million cars and trucks on the road with infotainment systems, and that will jump to about 62 million vehicles by 2018, AAA spokeswoman Yolanda Cade said, citing automotive industry research. At the same time, drivers tell the AAA they believe phones and other devices are safe to use behind the wheel if they are hands-free, she said.

“We believe there is a public safety crisis looming,” Cade said. “We hope this study will change some widely held misconceptions by motorists.”

AAA officials who briefed automakers, safety advocates and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the study’s findings said they want to limit in-vehicle, voice-driven technologies to “core driving tasks.” The National Safety Council, responding to the AAA study, also called on industry and policymakers “to reconsider the inclusion of communications and entertainment technology built into vehicles which allow, or even encourage, the driver to engage in these activities at the expense of focusing on driving.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers was skeptical. “We are extremely concerned that it could send a misleading message, since it suggests that hand-held and hands-free devices are equally risky,” the association said in a statement.

The automakers’ trade group said the AAA study focuses only on the mental distraction posed by using a device and ignores the visual and manual aspects of hand-held versus hands-free systems that are integrated into cars.

Other studies also have compared hand-held and hands-free phone use, finding they are equally risky or nearly so. But a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study of drivers’ real world driving experiences found hand-held phone use was less safe than hands-free.

One reason using voice commands is so much more distracting for drivers, even though they aren’t using their hands, is that they often require more concentration than simply speaking to another person, said University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer, an expert on cognitive distraction and lead author of the study. Talking to a computer requires far greater precision than talking to a person, he said. Otherwise, “Call home” may get you Home Depot.

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