Hands-free tech still poses high risk for drivers

Hands-free technologies, such as Apple’s iOS for car displays, that allow drivers to text, talk on their phone or even use Facebook while driving, are still dangerous mental distractions, according to findings released today.

The findings, from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, revealed that even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, the mental workload from hands-free tech distracts and slows their reaction times.

With a predicted five-fold increase in infotainment systems in new vehicles by 2018, AAA is calling for action as result of its research.

Recommendations

AAA urged the automotive and electronics industries to explore limiting voice-activated technology to driving-related activities, such as temperature control or windshield wipers, to reduce mental distractions.

The organization also recommended disabling certain functions of voice-to-text technologies, such as using social media, email or texting, so that they are inoperable while the vehicle is in motion.

Equipment used by the University of Utah to evaluate drivers using hands-free tech in a car.

”There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies,” AAA CEO Robert Darbelnet said 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.”

Apple’s interest

During its World Wide Developer Conference, Apple announced Monday that it would be extending its iOS displays, like that of the iPad, to in-car displays. About 95% of cars sold today have voice-activated, integrated music playback and control from an iOS device, Apple said.

”But we want to take this integration to a whole new level,” Eddy Cue, chief of Internet Software and Service at Apple, said during a keynote at the WWDC Monday. “What if you could get iOS on the screen that is built into your car... so that you could make phone calls, play music, go to maps, or get your i-messages right on the screen of your car eyes free using Siri.”

[Read: Sorry Siri, Voice-controlled interfaces are not safe for driving]

Cue said the following car manufacturers would be introducing iOS features in 2014: Honda, Mercedes, Nissan, Ford, Chevy, Lexus, Kia, Mitsubishi, Volvo, Acura, and Jaguar.

But, according to AAA, using voice-activated interfaces compromises a driver’s brain function, resulting in drivers who scan the road less and miss visual cues, which could result in drivers not seeing items right in front of them, including stop signs and pedestrians.

The Consumer Electronics Association Wednesday commented on the AAA study. “CEA welcomes all research on how to increase roadway safety and shares AAA’s interest in preventing distracted driving,: said President and CEO Gary Shapiro in a statement. “However, we believe this AAA-sponsored study suffers from a number of methodology flaws, and, as a result, its broad conclusions about voice-to-text technology should be questioned.”

Shapiro suggested that interested parties look at another study, done by Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute on behalf of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), which found that hands-free, voice-activated devices constitute no increased safety risks. The study is titled “The Impact of Driver Inattention
On Near-Crash/Crash Risk.”

How the AAA study research was done

The AAA study research was performed by cognitive distraction expert David Strayer at the University of Utah. Strayer and his research team measured brainwaves, eye movement, and other metrics to assess what happens to drivers’ mental workload when they attempt to perform multiple tasks at once.

The researchers used cameras to track the driver’s eye and head movement, a Detection-Response-Task device known as the “DRT” to record driver reaction time, and a electroencephalograph (EEG)-configured skull cap to chart drivers’ brain activity too determine mental workload (as shown above).

Drivers participating in the study engaged in common tasks, ranging from listening to an audio book or talking on the phone to listening and responding to voice-activated emails while behind the wheel.

The levels of mental distraction were represented on a scale of one to three, one being the least and three being the most.

Tasks such as listening to the radio ranked as a category one level of distraction or a minimal risk, while talking on a cell phone, both handheld and hands-free, resulted in a category two (moderate) level of distraction.

The highest level of distraction was attributed to listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features, which increased mental workload and distraction levels of the drivers to the point of “extensive risk.”

”These findings reinforce previous research that hands-free is not risk-free,” AAA Foundation CEO Peter Kissinger said in a statement. “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.”

Computerworld Senior Editor Matt Hamblen contributed to this report.

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