AAA Mental Distraction While Driving Study Infographic

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has released a study finding that using voice commands to send text messages and emails or to update a Facebook page while driving is more distracting than talking on a cell phone. The AAA is calling it the most comprehensive study of its kind.

The study finds that the voice-activated systems that automakers have been putting in vehicles are taking drivers’ minds off the road, Matt Richtel and Bill Vlasic write in The New York Times. They go on to say:

‘What we really have on our hands is a looming public safety crisis with the proliferation of these vehicles,’ said Yolanda Cade, a spokeswoman for AAA, whose Foundation for Highway Safety released the study on Wednesday. She characterized the rush to equip cars with Internet-enabled systems as ‘an arms race.’

The study is among the most exhaustive look to date at the new in-car technology and sets up a potential clash between safety advocates and the auto industry, given that automakers increasingly see profit potential in the new systems.

Voice commands in vehicles extend to such things as turning on windshield wipers and ordering food, as Joan Lowy points out in an Associated Press article appearing in the Chicago Sun-Times.

According to IMS Research, an electronics consulting firm, more than half of all new cars will have voice-recognition technology of one type or another by 2019, The New York Times writes. Among the many voice-activated systems now in place are one in which drivers can dictate emails and text messages in the BMW 7-series sedan, and one in the Chevrolet Sonic that lets drivers compose texts orally on an iPhone that is connected to the vehicle, The New York Times writes.

Lowy writes that the study found that:

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.

In fact, the more concentration a task requires of a driver, the more likely that driver is to develop “inattention blindness” in which he or she stops looking in side view and rear view mirrors, stops scanning the roadway, and looks straight ahead but does not see what is there, such as red lights and pedestrians, Lowy writes.

In her article, she includes the following quote:

‘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.’

David Strayer, the lead researcher for the study, told The New York Times that the study’s findings should make carmakers think twice about what they are doing. The assumption is that speech-based technology is safe, but it is not, said Strayer, who is a neuroscientist at the University of Utah and has been studying driver behavior for two decades.

According to Ronald Montoya, consumer advice editor for, automakers are not likely to slow down the in-car voice-activated technology unless there are laws against it, The New York Times writes. “They’re not going to pause based on this research,” he said.

Gloria Bergquist, vice president for public affairs at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told The New York Times that carmakers are trying to keep drivers connected without their having to use handheld phones while driving. “It is a connected society, and people want to be connected in their car just as they are in their home or wherever they may be,” she said.

Among the many comments posted to The New York Times article is one by “r”: “Industry’s profit motive trumps citizens’ safety. We need a MADD-type campaign.”

And someone named Tim C. posted the following sentence as part of his comment:

This is why we have a federal government: to pass laws that are in the public interest — in this case, banning voice-activated technologies as well as talking on a mobile phone / texting while driving — when private industry is clearly acting in a way that is harmful to the lives of thousands of Americans, and state legislatures are too impotent or incompetent to take action.

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