“Hands-free” may not mean “risk free,” you see …

June 13, 2013

There’s a new study out from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety that purports to show while “hands-free” technologies might make it easier for motorists to text, talk on the phone, or even use Facebook while they drive, they generate what the group calls “dangerous mental distractions” when using them despite drivers keeping their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. 

The AAA Foundation’s study found that as mental workload and distractions increase reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, thus drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues – potentially resulting in drivers not seeing items right in front of them including stop signs and pedestrians.

Not exactly what one would call a rousing endorsement of “voice-to-text” technology, now is it? Especially as a five-fold increase in infotainment systems is predicted for new vehicles by 2018, according to the AAA Foundation’s research.

“There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies,” said AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet in a statement. “It’s time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental  distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free.”

Janet Froetscher, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, endorsed AAA’s position, saying OEMs should reconsider the inclusion of communications and entertainment technology built into vehicles that allow, or even encourage, the driver to engage in these activities at the expense of focusing on driving.

“Auto crashes are the leading cause of death for everyone between five and 35 years old in the U.S.,” she added. “About 100 people die every day on our nation's roads. And the number one cause of car crashes is human error and driver distraction is the top human error. Based on this new research and many earlier studies, it is irresponsible to permit, enable and even encourage non-driving related activities that divert a driver's attention from the task of driving.”

Dr. David Strayer and a research team at the University of Utah conducted this “cognitive distraction” study for the AAA Foundation by measuring brainwaves, eye movement and other metrics to assess what happens to drivers’ mental workload when they attempt to do multiple things at once.

That research included:

  • Cameras mounted inside an instrumented car to track eye and head movement of drivers.
  • A Detection-Response-Task device known as the “DRT” was used to record driver reaction time in response to triggers of red and green lights added to their field of vision.
  • A special electroencephalographic (EEG)-configured skull cap was used to chart participants’ brain activity so that researchers could determine mental workload.

Strayer said he also used established research protocols borrowed from aviation psychology and a variety of performance metrics to measure how drivers engaged in common tasks – from listening to an audio book or talking on the phone to listening and responding to voice-activated emails -- while operating a vehicle.

His team then used the results to rate the levels of mental distraction drivers experienced while performing each of the tasks. Similar to the Saffir-Simpson scale used for hurricanes, the levels of mental distraction were represented as follows:

  • Tasks such as listening to the radio ranked as a category “1” level of distraction or a minimal risk.
  • Talking on a cell-phone, both handheld and hands-free, resulted in a “2” or a moderate risk.
  • Listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features increased mental workload and distraction levels of the drivers to a “3” rating or one of extensive risk.

“These findings reinforce previous research that hands-free is not risk-free,” said AAA Foundation President and CEO Peter Kissinger. “Increased mental workload and cognitive distractions can lead to a type of tunnel vision or inattention blindness where motorists don’t see potential hazards right in front of them.”

As a result of Strayer’s study, AAA is formulating some policy perspective on “hands-free” technologies:

  • Limiting use of voice-activated technology to core driving-related activities such as climate control, windshield wipers and cruise control, and to ensure these applications do not lead to increased safety risk due to mental distraction while the car is moving.
  • Disabling certain voice-to-text technologies, such as social media e-mail and text messages, when the vehicle is in motion.

“This study constitutes the most in-depth analysis to date of mental distractions behind the wheel.  AAA is hopeful that it will serve as a stepping stone toward working in collaboration with automakers to promote our shared goal of improving safety for all drivers,” said Darbelnet. “Specifically, these increasingly common voice-driven, in-vehicle technologies should be limited to use for just core driving tasks unless the activity results in no significant driver distraction.”

We’ll see how such positions affect the use of “voice integrated” technologies in trucking down the road.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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