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Study Finds Dangers in Hands-Free Technologies

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Mental distraction associated with voice-activated systems.

A new study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, in partnership with the University of Utah, finds that certain mental distractions can keep a driver’s attention off the road for as long as 27 seconds after the initial distraction, even when his or her eyes are on the road and hands are on the wheel.

AAA called the research findings surprising, saying they raise “new and unexpected concerns regarding the use of phones and vehicle information systems while driving.” Peter Kissinger, the foundation’s president and CEO, said:

The results indicate that motorists could miss stop signs, pedestrians and other vehicles while the mind is readjusting to the task of driving.

The study is the foundation’s third in its investigation of cognitive distraction.

In-Vehicle Information Systems

To conduct the study, Dr. David Strayer and Dr. Joel Cooper of the University of Utah investigated 10 2015 vehicles equipped with in-vehicle information systems (IVIS): Chrysler 200c, Chevy Malibu, Chevy Equinox, Mazda 6, Ford Taurus, Hyundai Sonata, Toyota 4Runner, Buick LaCrosse, Nissan Altima, and Volkswagen Passat. They were driven by 127 men and 130 women in three age groups: 21-34, 35-53, and 54-70. Each driver was assigned six tasks (including contact calling, number dialing, and music selection) to perform while driving, using the cars’ voice-activated systems.

The study found that when drivers interacted with the IVIS system they experienced moderate to high levels of cognitive distraction. Although having drivers improved slightly after practicing with the IVIS systems, “intuitiveness and complexity ratings were not affected as a result of practice.”

Some of the AAA study’s key findings include:

  • Cognitive distraction associated with task performance was surprisingly high with hands-free technology.
  • Compared to earlier research, many of the IVIS interactions appear to be significantly more demanding than typical cell phone conversations.
  • Impairment lingered up to 27 seconds after a driver terminated a call or made a music selection.

Best and Worst Tested

In the study, the lower the cognitive distraction rating, the better, but any rating of 2 or higher is potentially dangerous while driving, wrote Jerry Hirsch for the Los Angeles Times. The study found that of the vehicles and IVIS systems tested, the best-performing system, rated at 2.4, was on the Chevrolet Equinox crossover, which, according to AAA, has a MyLink system. The worst-performing system, with a cognitive distraction rating of 4.6, was the Mazda 6 sedan, which was equipped with a Connect system. Mazda told the Los Angeles Times that it has improved the system for its 2016 model year, based on what it learned from AAA’s previous testing.

As for using voice commands to control phone systems while driving, the study found that the Google Now system performed best, at 3.0, Apple Siri had a 3.4, and Microsoft’s Cortana earned a rating of 3.8. However, when a driver used voice commands and phones to send texts, he or she was even more distracted: Google Now rated a 3.3 distraction, Apple Siri a 3.7 distraction, and Microsoft Cortana a 4.1 distraction when the driver sent voice-activated texts.

Marshall Doney, the president and CEO of AAA, urged drivers to be cautious when using voice-activated systems, even while stopped at an intersection or during a letup in traffic:

The reality is that mental distractions persist and can affect driver attention even after the light turns green.

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