Hands-free doesn't mean home free when it comes to driving safety

by Rachel Lynn Aldrich
Posted 6/14/13, 04:04 pm

As long as hands are on the wheel and eyes are on the road, driving is safe, right? Nope. Turns out “hands-free” devices, like voice commands to send text messages and emails from behind the wheel, are actually more dangerous than talking on the phone, according to a new AAA study.

Automakers are coming out with dashboard infotainment systems that use voice commands for things like turning on windshield wipers, posting Facebook messages, or ordering pizza. But talking on a hands-free phone isn’t safer for drivers than talking on a hand-held phone. Hands-free devices that translate speech into text are the most dangerous, researchers found. They require greater concentration by drivers than other potentially distracting activities examined in the study, including talking on the phone, talking to a passenger, or listening to the radio.

Safety is not a question of where the hands are, but where the attention is.

The greater the concentration required, the more likely a driver is to develop what researchers call “tunnel vision” or “inattention blindness.” Drivers 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.

“Police accident investigative reports are filled with comments like the ‘looked, but did not see,’” said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “We used to think they were lying, but now we know that’s actually true.”

Voice commands require more concentration than speaking to another person because they require more precision, they are harder to understand, and they don’t give feedback.

About 9 million cars and trucks currently have infotainment systems, and that number is expected to jump to about 62 million by 2018, AAA spokeswoman Yolanda Cade said. 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.

AAA officials said they want automakers to limit in-vehicle, voice-driven technologies to “core driving tasks.”

A simple, quick voice command to turn on windshield wipers isn’t very distracting, but concentrating on creating a text message and trying to get it right takes a great deal more mental effort and time, David Strayer, an expert on cognitive distraction and lead author of the study said: “The more complex and the longer those interactions are, the more likely you are going to have impairments when you’re driving.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Rachel is an assistant editor for WORLD Digital. She is a Patrick Henry College and World Journalism Institute graduate. Rachel resides with her husband in Wheaton, Ill.

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