Hands-free technology in new cars pose hidden dangers for drivers

Mental distractions caused by using in-car voice-activated technologies can last up to 27 seconds after making a call, selecting music or sending a text, according to new research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

The research raises new and unexpected concerns regarding the hands-free use of phones and voice-activated vehicle information systems while driving. It also indicates motorists can mist stop signs, pedestrians and other vehicles while the mind readjusts to the task of driving.

This latest research is the third phase of the Foundation’s comprehensive investigation into cognitive distraction, which shows that new hands-free technologies can mentally distract drivers even if their eyes are on the road and their hands are on the wheel.


“The reality is that mental distractions persist and can affect driver attention even after the light turns green,” warns Lloyd Albert, AAA Northeast Senior Vice President of Public and Government Affairs. “Drivers should use caution while using voice-activated systems, even at seemingly safe moments when there is a lull in traffic or the car is stopped at an intersection,”

Researchers discovered the residual effects of mental distraction while comparing new hands-free technologies in ten 2015 vehicles and three types of smart phones. The analysis found all the systems studied did increase mental distraction to unsafe levels. The systems that performed best generally had fewer errors, required less time on task and were relatively easy to use.

The researchers rated mental distraction on a five-point scale. Category one represents a mild level of distraction and category five represents the maximum. AAA considers a mental distraction rating of two and higher to be dangerous while driving.

The best performing system was in the Chevy Equinox with a cognitive distraction rating of 2.4, while the worst performing system was in the Mazda 6 with a cognitive distraction rating of 4.6.

Among phone systems, Google Now performed best with a distraction rating of 3.0, while Apple Siri and Microsoft Cortana earned ratings of 3.4 and 3.8, respectively. Using the phones to send texts significantly increased the level of mental distraction. While sending voice-activated texts, Google Now rated as a category 3.3 distraction, while Apple Siri and Microsoft Cortana rated as category 3.7 and category 4.1 distractions.

“The massive increase in voice-activated technologies in cars and phones represents a growing safety problem for drivers,” continued Albert. “We’re concerned these new systems invite driver distraction, even as overwhelming scientific evidence concludes that hands-free is not risk free.”

Previous AAA Foundation research established that a category 1 mental distraction is about the same as listening to the radio or an audio book. A category 2 distraction is about the same as talking on the phone, while category 3 is equivalent to sending voice-activated texts on a perfect, error-free system. Category 4 is similar to updating social media while driving, while category 5 corresponds to a highly-challenging, scientific test designed to overload a driver’s attention.

“Developers should aim to reduce mental distractions by designing systems that are no more demanding than listening to the radio or an audiobook,” continued Albert. “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.”

Dr. David Strayer and Dr. Joel Cooper of the University of Utah conducted the research. A total of 257 drivers ages 21-70 participated in the study of 2015 model-year vehicles, while 65 additional drivers ages 21-68 tested the three phone systems.

AAA Northeast is a not-for-profit auto club with 61 offices in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York providing more than 5.2 million local AAA members with travel, insurance, finance, and auto-related services.

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