New AAA-Sponsored Study Casts Doubts On Safety Of Hands-Free Device Use By Drivers

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
While most people tend to believe the use of hands-free devices while operating a motor vehicle is a safe practice and does not cause drivers to become distracted, new research from the University of Utah and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety suggests otherwise.
According to Hadley Malcolm of USA Today, the organizations tested a variety of voice-activated car systems (including Apple’s Siri, Chevrolet’s MyLink, and Toyota’s Entune). Each system was then rated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning the system did not distract the driver and 5 indicating it was highly demanding mentally.
In one of two studies conducted Utah psychology professor David Strayer and his colleagues, the researchers found that using voice commands to make phone calls or tune the radio using MyLink distracted drivers the most, earning it a score of 3.7. Mercedes’ COMMAND system (with a score of 3.1), MyFord Touch (3.0) and Chrysler’s UConnect (2.7) fared better, but each of them diverted the driver’s attention more than a regular cell phone conversation would have.
With a score of 1.7, Entune was found to be the least distracting system, requiring only as much attention as listening to an audiobook, Strayer and his fellow authors reported. The next least distracting system was Hyundai’s Blue Link (2.2), which the research team compared to having a conversation with a passenger on the distraction scale.
In a separate study, they used Siri to send and receive texts, post to social media and use a calendar. As it turns out, Apple’s iPhone AI program received a worse rating than any of the in-car systems, scoring 4.14 even when modified for use as a hands-free, eyes-free device. In addition, test drivers using Siri twice rear-ended another car, said Associated Press (AP) reporter Joan Lowy.
“Even though your car may be configured to support social media, texting and phone calls, it doesn’t mean it is safe to do so,” Strayer said in a statement, adding that he and the AAA are urging drivers to minimize the use of in-vehicle technology that could prove distracting.
The findings of their research, he said, could be used to help automakers tweak future voice-controlled systems in order to make them “simpler and more accurate” in their responses. Strayer added that he and his colleagues were “concerned we may be making distraction problems worse by going to voice-activated technology, especially if it’s not easy to use. But the reality is these systems are here to stay. Given that, let’s make the technology as safe as possible with the goal of making it no more distracting than listening to the radio.”
The research involved 162 Utah students and other volunteers who performed a variety of tasks using the various voice-based interactive technologies while looking at a computer screen as they operated a driving simulator. They also drove actual vehicles on a loop through Salt Lake City’s Avenues district, during which time they were accompanied by at least one other researcher for data collection and safety purposes.
Their work follows a 2013 AAA-University of Utah study which demonstrated that using hands-free devices to talk, text or send e-mail could be distracting and risky for motorists. It was during that research the researchers established the five-point mental workload scale and gave distraction ratings of 1.21 for listening to the radio, 1.75 for listening to an audiobook, 2.27 for using a hands-free cell phone, 2.33 for talking with a passenger, 2.45 for using a hand-held cell phone and 3.06 for using a speech-to-text system used to play and compose emails and texts.
“Technologies used in the car that rely on voice communications may have unintended consequences that adversely affect road safety,” explained Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “The level of distraction and the impact on safety can vary tremendously based on the task or the system the driver is using.”
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