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New AAA Report Suggest Hands-Free Tech Still Distracts

Wed, 06/12/2013 - 9:31am
Andrew Berg

Hands-free technologies may not be making using mobile devices behind the wheel any safer, according to a new report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. According to the new findings, dangerous mental distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.  

The research found that as mental workload and distractions increase, regardless of whether a driver's eyes are on the road, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, 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.

The report notes a predicted five-fold increase in infotainment systems in new vehicles by 2018, and the AAA is calling for action as result of this landmark research.

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

The research was conducted by cognitive distraction expert Dr. David Strayer and his research team at the University of Utah. The team measured brainwaves, eye movement and other metrics to assess what happens to drivers’ mental workload when they attempt to do multiple things at once, building on research in the aerospace and automotive industries. The 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. 

Researchers 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 are represented on a scale. 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.”

“The research results support AAA’s efforts to educate the public that distractions come in many forms,” said Amy Stracke, managing director, traffic safety advocacy, AAA – The Auto Club Group. “Visual and manual distractions have been identified and studied previously, but mental distractions are just as dangerous.”

 Based on the research, AAA is suggesting the automotive and electronics limit the use of voice-activated technology to core driving-related activities such as climate control, windshield wipers and cruise control. AAA is also encouraging the disabling of certain functionalities of voice-to-text technologies such as using social media or interacting with e-mail and text messages so that they are inoperable while the vehicle is in motion.

The full Cognitive Distraction in the Vehicle report, the AAA Foundation's Research Compendium on Cognitive Distraction, and the AAA's Distracted Driving Fact Sheet can all be found here

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