Hands-Free Texting Still Distracting For Drivers

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WASHINGTON
(AP) — Using voice commands to send text messages and emails from
behind the wheel, which is marketed as a safer alternative for drivers,
actually is more distracting and dangerous than simply talking on a
cellphone, a new AAA study found.

Automakers
have been trying to excite new-car buyers, especially younger ones, with
dashboard infotainment systems that let drivers use voice commands do
things like turning on windshield wipers, posting Facebook messages or
ordering pizza. The pitch has been that hands-free devices are safer
because they enable drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and their
eyes on the road.

But talking on a hands-free
phone isn't significantly safer for drivers than talking on a hand-held
phone, and using hands-free devices that translate speech into text is
the most distracting of all, researchers found. 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.

The greater the
concentration required to perform a task, the more likely a driver is to
develop what researchers call “tunnel vision” or “inattention
blindness.” Drivers will stop scanning the roadway or ignore their side
and review mirrors. Instead, they look straight ahead, but fail to see
what's in front of them, like red lights and pedestrians.

“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.”

There
are about 9 million cars and trucks on the road with infotainment
systems, and that will jump to about 62 million vehicles by 2018, AAA
spokeswoman Yolanda Cade said, citing automotive industry research. At
the same time, drivers tell the AAA they believe phones and other
devices are safe to use behind the wheel if they are hands-free, she
said.

“We believe there is a public safety
crisis looming,” Cade said. “We hope this study will change some widely
held misconceptions by motorists.”

AAA
officials who briefed automakers, safety advocates and the National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the study's findings said they
want to limit in-vehicle, voice-driven technologies to “core driving
tasks.”

The Alliance of Automobile
Manufacturers was skeptical. “We are extremely concerned that it could
send a misleading message, since it suggests that hand-held and
hands-free devices are equally risky,” the association said in a
statement.

The automakers' trade group said
the AAA study focuses only on the mental distraction posed by using a
device and ignores the visual and manual aspects of hand-held versus
hands-free systems that are integrated into cars.

Other
studies have also compared hand-held and hands-free phone use, finding
they are equally risky or nearly so. But a recent National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration study of drivers' real world driving
experiences found hand-held phone use was less safe than hands-free.

Researchers
at the University of Utah who conducted the study for the AAA measured
the brainwaves, eye movement, driving performance and other indicators
of 32 university students as they drove and performed a variety of
secondary tasks, ranging from listening to music to sending emails.
Cameras were mounted inside the car to track drivers' eye and head
movements. A device that drivers pressed was used to record their
reaction time to red and green lights introduced to their field of
vision. Drivers were fitted with a special skull cap to record their
brain activity.

The students were tested while
not driving, while driving in a simulator and while driving a car on a
3-mile loop through a suburban Salt Lake City neighborhood with stop
signs and stoplights. A researcher with a backup braking system
accompanied the students in the test car.

One
reason using voice commands is so much more distracting for drivers,
even though they aren't using their hands, is that they often require
more concentration than simply speaking to another person, said
University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer, an expert on
cognitive distraction and lead author of the study. Talking to a
computer requires far greater precision than talking to a person, he
said. Otherwise, “Call home” may get you Home Depot.

Synthetic
computer voices can be harder to understand than human voices, also
requiring more attention. The computers used in the study were
exceptionally high-fidelity systems that made no errors, but the systems
in cars aren't as good, Strayer said. He said that means the study
probably underestimates the concentration required of drivers, and thus
the ability of speech-to-text systems to distract them.

Another
difference: In phone conversations, a person who is listening will give
indications that they agree with what the speaker has said or have
heard what was said. Computers don't provide that feedback.

“The complexity of trying to say something that is coherent when there is no feedback is much more difficult,” Strayer said.

A
simple, quick voice command to turn on windshield wipers isn't very
distracting, he said. But concentrating on creating a text message and
trying to get it right takes a great deal more mental effort and time.

“The
more complex and the longer those interactions are, the more likely you
are going to have impairments when you're driving,” Strayer said.


 

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