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Hands-Free Gadgets Still Distracting For Drivers

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(Source: istockphoto)

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – South Florida drivers who use hands free gadgets to talk on the phone and send text messages or emails from behind the wheel because they think they are a safer alternative could be more distracted and in more danger than if they simply talked on a cell phone, according to a new AAA study.

Automakers have tried to excite new-car buyers, especially younger ones, with smart dashboard systems that let drivers use voice commands to do things like turning on windshield wipers, posting Facebook statuses 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.

However, researchers found that those who talked on a hands-free phone weren’t safer than drivers who talked on a hand-held phone. Hands-free devices that translate speech into text were the most distracting of all.

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.

“It’s a widely held misconception that people believe if their eyes are on the road and their hands are on the wheel that they’re actually safer,” said spokeswoman for AAA Yolanda Cade.

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” where 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. “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 nine million cars and trucks on the road with infotainment systems, and that will jump to about 62 million vehicles by 2018, said Cade. 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,” said Cade. “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 focused only on the mental distraction posed by using a device and ignored 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 a university 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 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 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, said Strayer. He said that the study could have underestimated the concentration required of drivers, and thus the ability of speech-to-text systems to distract them.

Another difference was in phone conversations. A person who listened gave indications that they agreed with what the speaker said or 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,” said Strayer.

A simple, quick voice command to turn on windshield wipers isn’t very distracting, according to Strayer, 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,” said Strayer.

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