AAA: Hands-Free Phones & Infotainment Systems Are Major Distractions For Drivers

October 22, 2015

We've spent plenty of time talking about the dangers of texting and driving, and the data on that seems clear: taking your eyes off the road to type out a message on your smartphone is a recipe for disaster.

But what about using hands-free, voice-to-text systems? If you ask Siri to send a text to your mom, are you putting your life in danger?

According to a new study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the answer is an unequivocal "yes".

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The study was carried out by Dr. David Strayer and Dr. Joel Cooper from the University of Utah. Because voice-activated software comes in a variety of forms, Strayer and Cooper studied both in-car communications systems and others built into smartphones (e.g. Apple Siri, Google Now, Microsoft Cortana). For the car portion of the test, they employed 257 drivers between the ages of 21 and 70, using 2015 model-year vehicles. For the smartphone portion, they used 65 drivers between the ages of 21 and 68.

The study's findings aren't especially nuanced. As Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, explains, "The lasting effects of mental distraction pose a hidden and pervasive danger that would likely come as a surprise to most drivers. The results indicate that motorists could miss stop signs, pedestrians and other vehicles while the mind is readjusting to the task of driving."

Here are some bulletpoints to back up Kissinger's statements:

  • In the worst-performing systems -- including the worst of the bunch, found in the Mazda6 -- participants were distracted up to 27 seconds after completing their chosen task. Even at the relatively low speed of 25 mph, that means drivers traveled the length of nearly three football fields before getting their heads back in the game.
  • In the best-performing systems -- including those found in the Chevrolet Equinox and the Buick LaCrosse -- recovery times were much better, but still clocked in above 15 seconds. At 25 mph, that's still more than 36 feet per second of distraction, or 540 feet. 
  • It's no surprise that the biggest problems with many systems involved misunderstood commands. (Ever tried to get your phone to fire off an email? It's an exercise in frustration.)
  • The study scored mental distraction on a five-point scale, with one being least-distracting (e.g. listening to an audiobook) and five being most distracting (e.g. taking a test meant to challenge focus abilities). Here's how the three smartphone systems and some of the best and worst cars stacked up:
    • Chevrolet Equinox & Buick LaCrosse: 2.4 (tie)
    • Toyota 4Runner: 2.9
    • Google Now: 3.0
    • Ford Taurus: 3.1
    • Chevrolet Malibu & Apple Siri: 3.4 (tie)
    • Volkswagen Passat: 3.5
    • Nissan Altima: 3.7
    • Chrysler 200C, Hyundai Sonata, Microsoft Cortana: 3.8 (tie)
    • Mazda Mazda6: 4.6
  • Sending texts was one of the most challenging tasks, requiring more attention from users and thus creating more of a distraction. On that front, all three smartphone systems edged up 0.3 points, pushing Cortana above the 4.0 mark.

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AAA understands that this technology is out of the bag, and asking users to stop using it would be an exercise in futility. However, the organization hopes that automakers will make it simpler to employ and far more accurate in the future.

AAA's Marshall Doney says that "Developers should reduce mental distractions by designing systems that are no more demanding than listening to the radio or an audiobook. Given that the impairing effects of distraction may last much longer than people realize, AAA advises consumers to use caution when interacting with these technologies while behind the wheel."

To see some of these tests in action, check out the fairly alarming video above.

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