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Study Finds Voice Systems Do Not Eliminate Distraction

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Chart from AgeLab/IIHS study; courtesy IIHS

Chart from AgeLab/IIHS study; courtesy IIHS

A study to determine the safety of using voice commands to operate smartphones and infotainment systems has found that voice systems do not completely eliminate visual distractions for drivers, as Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab reports. AgeLab conducted the study along with researchers from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and New England University Transportation Center (NEUTC), AgeLab writes.

Most people expose themselves to multitasking every day while driving, even if that means “ ‘just’ thinking about something other than driving,” AgeLab writes. This creates the risk of car accidents; and one of the reasons it is happening is what AgeLab calls the “meteoric rise of GPS navigation and smartphones.” To prevent such distracted driving, automakers have added in-vehicle “multimodal interfaces,” AgeLab writes.

However, although voice systems help drivers keep their eyes on the road somewhat (as compared with manual interfaces), the study finds that such systems do not eliminate visual distraction altogether, IIHS Highway Loss Data Institute writes. In addition, the study found considerable differences between the embedded voice systems of two vehicle makers and the voice interface of a smartphone, all three of which researchers compared in the study, IIHS writes.

The study compared the Chevrolet MyLink system (in a 2013 Chevy Equinox) and the Volvo Sensus system (in a 2013 Volvo XC60), IIHS reports. Half of the 80 participants in the study used each system, and all of the participants (who were ages 20-66) used a Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone that was programmed with the same list of more than 100 contacts and mounted in the center console area, IIHS reports. The study participants were trained in use of the systems and in use of the Galaxy S4, and were asked to use the systems while driving in the Boston area to make a call manually, make a call using voice commands, and enter an address for navigation using voice commands, IIHS writes. All of the drivers were asked to make safe driving their priority. IIHS writes:

The wide variety of both smartphones and vehicle systems makes it difficult to generalize from the study, and the outcome might have been different if participants had been familiar with both the phone and the vehicle. What’s clear, however, is that voice input has some benefits compared with manual input, and there are pluses and minuses in different designs.

When it comes to cellphones and infotainment systems, many safety advocates are concerned that hands-free and voice-activated systems don’t eliminate cognitive distraction. In the current study, cognitive distraction wasn’t specifically measured.

Chart from AgeLab/IIHS study

Chart from AgeLab/IIHS study; courtesy IIHS

The researchers found that there are plusses and minuses to the voice technology in the smartphone as compared with the two embedded voice systems, AgeLab writes. The smartphones took less time to use to enter an address, but the embedded voice systems proved easier to use to make calls, AgeLab writes.

IIHS writes:

‘Cognitive distraction is a real concern but a difficult one to study,’ [Senior IIHS Research Scientist Ian] Reagan says. ‘However, regarding visual distraction, there’s no question that if you’re at least looking at the road ahead, you have a better chance of not crashing into something in front of you than if you’re looking at a vehicle infotainment display or at your cellphone.’

In an article about this study for The Detroit News, David Shepardson notes that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it wanted to ban drivers from making handheld and hands-free calls. “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 3,328 people were killed and an estimated 421,000 were injured in distraction-related crashes in 2012,” Shepardson writes.

As this blog has reported, the Colorado Department of Transportation says that each time a driver sends or reads a text message, his or her eyes are diverted from the road for enough time to drive the length of a football field at 55 MPH blindfolded, an average of 4.6 seconds.


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