Voice-based devices can have hand in driver distraction

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A study released Wednesday by AAA suggests that, for their own safety, drivers might want to return to the days when hand-held cell phones were the most advanced technology found in cars.

Despite allowing individuals to keep their hands on the steering wheel, the use of voice-activated systems to issue commands can, in fact, be more dangerous than making a call on a cell phone, University of Utah researchers have found. Participants in the study, asked to perform a variety of tasks, were most distracted when using hands-free speech-to-text technology.

The study concluded that "the adoption of voice-based systems in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety."

"There is a big misconception that if you have your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road that you're going to be safe," said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "Now we have new, scientifically backed evidence that that's simply not the case."

The study's authors had 38 university students complete eight different tasks that allowed them to keep their eyes on the road, such as listening to the radio or having a conversation with a passenger. The tasks were completed in three different settings: while not driving, while driving a simulator and while driving a vehicle in a residential neighborhood. The researchers then measured a number of factors such as brain activity, eye movement and reaction time of participants to determine their level of "cognitive distraction."

Led by University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer, the study's authors found that activities such as listening to an audio book caused a small increase in cognitive distraction while talking to a friend caused greater distraction. Notably, hands-free cell phones were only slightly less distracting than hand-held cell phones.

The greatest distraction, however, came from the use of voice-activated systems to text and email, among other functions.

While car manufacturers continue working to provide consumers with increasingly advanced technology in their vehicles, the study states that the "lessons learned from the current research suggest that such voice-based interaction is not risk-free, and in some instances the impairments to driving may rise to the level associated with drunk driving."

Marcel Just, a psychology professor and director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University, said multitasking always comes with a cost. A person almost never performs a task as well when required to divide attention between activities as compared with giving the one task full attention. There is a limit to the amount of brain activity that can occur at any one time, he said.

"One of the benefits of research like Strayer's is that it points out and measures the limits of human performance," said Mr. Just, who has previously studied the effects of multitasking on the brain when driving. "We don't inherently sense this limitation."

Mr. Kissinger said the greater the distraction a driver faces in the car, the more likely he is to experience "inattention blindness," a phenomenon in which someone is so mentally focused on a task that he can literally fail to see what is on the road ahead.

State Sen. Jim Brewster, who sits on the Senate's transportation committee, said he thinks the issue of technology-related distractions when driving must be addressed, noting that he is always astonished by the dangerous practices of drivers he sees on the road.

"With technology being what it is, there's got to be a way to make this safer than what we have," the McKeesport Democrat said. "Right now, the technology is unbridled."

Mr. Brewster said he is considering introducing a bill to eliminate the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, though he recognized that Wednesday's report suggests talking on the phone can be a hazard even with hands-free technology.

In response to the AAA study, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said in a statement that "integrated hands-free systems" help drivers maintain attention on the road, and expressed concern that the AAA study "could send a misleading message since it suggests hand-held and hands-free devices are equally risky."

"The AAA study focuses only on the cognitive aspects of using a device, and ignores the visual and manual aspects of hand-held versus integrated hands-free systems," the Alliance said. "There are many other academic studies under way, and road safety will be enhanced by letting the complete body of research drive policy recommendations."

Mr. Kissinger said AAA recognizes it will be difficult to spread these most recent lessons on distracted driving to the public. Currently, three out of four drivers believe hands-free technology is safer than hand-held, he noted.

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Gavan Gideon: ggideon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4910.


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