Hands-Free Texting Is Not Distraction Free
April 23, 2013

Hands-Free Texting More Dangerous Than Manual Texting

Enid Burns for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

A new study released by the Texas Transportation Institute found that hands-free texting can add up to as much or more distraction and danger for drivers as manually reading and replying to texts.

A whole market has emerged for hands-free mobile phones and devices. Cars connect to phones. Some cars, devices or apps read texts to drivers and even let drivers respond to text messages without laying a hand on the phone.

According to the study, however, drivers are still distracted while thinking about the text message they're reading or their response.  In fact, the researchers found that drivers using hands-free technologies actually had slightly slower response times to events on the road than those who manually read and replied to texts.

The study, which was sponsored by the Southwest Region University Transportation Center and conducted by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI), looked at the reaction times of 43 drivers. Drivers navigated a road course without any cell phone; then again using different modes of texting. Drivers were studied using two voice-to-text applications including Siri for the iPhone and Vlingo for Android, and also manually texted. Researchers measured the time it took each driver to complete the tasks as well as how long it took drivers to respond to a light that came on at random intervals.

"Driver response times were significantly delayed no matter which texting method was used. In each case, drivers took about twice as long to react as they did when they weren't texting. With slower reaction times, drivers are less able to take action in response to sudden roadway hazards, such as a swerving vehicle or a pedestrian in the street," the report stated.

In general, drivers spent less time looking at the road when texting, regardless of whether they were using hands-free or manual texting.

Hands-free technologies that read text messages or other typed messages are not always accurate, which adds to the driver's distraction. While the driver is having messages read or even sending a text via hands-free methods, there is still a certain level of distraction.

"For most tasks, manual texting required slightly less time than the voice-to-text method, but driver performance was roughly the same with both," the report said.

While the study found that drivers using hands-free methods had slower response times than those who manually texted, "drivers felt less safe when they were texting, but felt safer when using a voice-to-text application than when texting manually, even though driving performance suffered equally with both methods," the report stated.

"Understanding the distracted driving issue is an evolving process, and this study is but one step in that process," said Christine Yager, associate transportation researcher of the Texas Transportation Institute, and study manager. "We believe it's a useful step, and we're eager to see what other studies may find."

The Texas Transportation Institute calls this the first study of its kind. Other studies have had similar findings on distracted driving. A study published last month in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention found that the dangers of using a hands-free kit or sending a text message is roughly equal to driving under the influence of alcohol.