AAA: Hands-Free Devices Don’t Solve Distracted Driving Dangers

Researchers at the University of Utah and AAA found that using hands-free electronic devices and on-board technology can cause dangerous levels of driver distraction. Image: ##

Distracted driving killed 3,331 people on American streets in 2011, yet car manufacturers continue to outdo each other to add more infotainment distractions in their vehicles. These systems are expected to increase five-fold by 2018, according to AAA. Carmakers seek to show their commitment to safety by making their distractions – onboard dinner reservation apps and social media, for example – hands-free. But a growing body of research indicates that there is no safe way to combine driving with tasks like dictating email or text messages.

AAA recently teamed up with experts at the University of Utah to conduct the most in-depth analysis to date of the impact of cognitive distractions on drivers’ performance. They found that some hands-free technologies, like voice-to-text email, can be far more dangerous than even handheld phone conversations. Unlike previous studies, they also found that conversations with passengers can be more distracting than those on the phone, but only if the passenger is kept unaware of what’s happening on the road.

The researchers had subjects first perform a series of eight tasks, ranging from nothing at all to usage of various electronic devices to something called OSPAN, or operation span, which sets the maximum demand the average adult brain can handle. For the OSPAN, the researchers gave subjects words and math problems to recall later, in the same order, as a way to “anchor the high end of the cognitive distraction scale developed by the research team,” according to AAA’s Jake Nelson.

The more mental energy an activity requires, the more it slows drivers' reaction time. Image: ##

The subjects then performed these eight tasks while operating a driving simulator, and then while driving on residential streets in an “instrumented” vehicle that captures information about the driver’s eye movements and brain activity.

In each environment, researchers studied how the additional tasks added to subjects’ “cognitive workload” and diminished their eye movements. They found that as drivers devote more mental energy to other tasks in addition to driving, the less observant they become, and the more they fail to scan for roadway hazards.

This bolsters the conclusions of previous experiments: that when drivers are mentally distracted by some other task, they get tunnel vision. They keep their eyes fixed on the road in front of them to the exclusion of everything else — the rear-view mirror, side mirrors, and “safety critical roadside objects” and “cross traffic threats” — such as pedestrians.

The AAA study also found that greater “cognitive workloads” slow drivers’ reactions to events like a ball rolling in front of the car and a kid running out to catch it. (Reaction times were measured with the simulator, not the instrumented vehicle driving on real streets.)

The researchers conclude that hands-free communications can be significantly more distracting and dangerous for drivers to engage in than passive tasks like listening to music:

Some activities, such as listening to the radio or a book on tape, are not very distracting. Other activities, such as conversing with a passenger or talking on a hand-held or hands- free cell phone, are associated with moderate/significant increases in cognitive distraction. Finally, there are in-vehicle activities, such as using a speech-to-text system to send and receive text or e-mail messages, which produced a relatively high level of cognitive distraction. The data suggest that a rush to voice-based interactions in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety.

Distracted drivers get tunnel vision, looking ahead without checking for other potential trouble spots. Image: ##

The researchers note that of the eight tasks, only one required subjects to take their hands off the wheel (using the handheld phone), and none involved taking their eyes off the road, so the decreased attention and increased reaction times were are all attributable to cognitive distraction – something all the hands-free gizmos in the world can’t fix.

Increased use of these distracting technologies contribute to a “looming public safety crisis,” said AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet in a statement.

The study authors say they hope their findings will be used to craft “scientifically-based policies on driver distraction,” particularly in relation to cognitive distraction.

AAA’s recommendations include:

  • Limiting the use of voice-activated technology to core driving-related activities such as climate control, windshield wipers and cruise control, and ensuring that these applications do not lead to increased safety risk due to mental distraction while the car is moving.
  • Disabling certain uses of voice-to-text technologies including social media, e-mail and text messaging, so that they are inoperable while the vehicle is in motion.
  • Educating vehicle owners and mobile device users about the responsible use and safety risks of in-vehicle technologies.

AAA has met with safety advocates and provided copies of the report to CEOs of all major U.S. automakers as part of its effort to raise awareness of the safety implications of emerging in-vehicle technologies.

22 thoughts on AAA: Hands-Free Devices Don’t Solve Distracted Driving Dangers

  1. The danger is when your talking on the phone, your mind is concentrating on the talk and driving is on the back shelf, it’s not whether your hands are physically off the wheel or not. Your looking but not seeing. These “intelligent” people just don’t seem to understand this.

  2. Cars should have internal cell phone jammers which operate whenever the vehicle is in motion. If making a phone call is that important, then you should pull over to make it.

  3. If only there was some regulatory body — a federal “Department of Transport,” say — that could politely suggest that auto companies consider addressing this pressing public safety issue.

  4. The “gold standard” for distracting conversations (even with hands-free equipment) is “Talking with your estranged spouse’s divorce lawyer”. One of the problems with modern cars is that it’s easy for drivers to go into “autopilot”. It’s not like the “old days” when one had to “shift gears” by hand.

  5. Would you text while driving? Of course not! most people will say. But, many of those same people use hands-free devices while driving even though the evidences says it’s not that much better.

    Many people then wonder: Why is talking with a person who is in the car with you so much less distracting than talking on the phone? Shouldn’t they be equally dangerous? Are they going to outlaw talking in the car?

    Well, it turns out that it has everything to do with the ability of the person to see what the driver is doing. A person in the passenger seat instinctively knows to stop talking or may even warn the driver when there is something to pay attention to on the road. A person on the phone has no idea what’s going on and will just keep gabbing. This creates the tension. The driver is trying to focus on the road, but the person on the phone isn’t pausing or helping like a passenger should. (And not all passengers are helpful, if they are not aware of what is going on on the road they are just as bad as talking on the phone.)

    I always thought the study that showed this to be true (from about 10 years back) was pretty neat. It’s one of those studies that takes what most people assume to be true and just blows it out of the water. I love that. It’s taken a long time for this to percolate to the “industry.”

    I still have noticed that most people think that “hands free” solves the problem but the problem has nothing to do with your hands! Now that AAA has said it maybe drivers and car manufactures will listen.

    My foot was broken by a driver who was talking hands free. And he probably still thinks it’s safe!

    It’s not. Stop the car or hang up, that’s the only way to be safe.

  6. when my wife talks to me in the car i just say “aha”
    on the phone i have to actually pay attention to what someone is saying

  7. They should install all that crap in the passenger seat. I like the fact that cars have this new technology built in but I can’t drive a car with all that crap on the drivers side. Its too fucking distracting.

    I got a Ford Focus from Zip-car once and with all the Sync crap its got buttons all over the steering wheel with d-pads and three screens behind the dashboard with all this information I don’t need. It was so stressful while in a new car to have all this crap. Needless to say I don’t take Fords from Zip-car anymore.

  8. I rented a new Chevy Malibu recently and I had to stop the car to turn on the goddamn air conditioner.

  9. The Department of Transportation’s NHTSA has published guidelines calling for carmakers to take account of almost exactly the points mentioned in this story. The trouble is that the automakers have pretty much told them to get lost and the guidelines are voluntary: The car companies say that, if in-vehicle built-in systems are too restrictive in what they allow, drivers will simply revert to using hands-free ‘phones, rather than connecting them to the in-vehicle docking device. They say that would be a greater danger. This study makes it look as if it’s at least partly the nature of the activity, rather than the mode of holding the mobile device, that’s important.

    All this said, I’m not clear if the study looked at the physical effect of using a handheld cellphone while driving. I can definitely spot drivers driving using a handheld cellphone because of the erratic way they turn while holding the wheel with only one hand.

  10. Nice to see the AAA fully grasp the obvious. Seriously, I’m glad they are on the record as saying these devices suck as far as roadway safety is concerned.

  11. Much like guns, we refuse to rein in cars & instead deal with the fallout.

    We have the laws; they’re not enforced (speed limits, mobile phones, etc).

  12. My wife had the same experience when she had a Focus rental. WAY too much going on. Putting aside the safety issues for a moment, its just terrible user interface design. Who can keep track off all that crap?

    I like Volkswagen’s UI aesthetic. All the functionality is there, but its mostly hidden away. You access everything through a couple of buttons on the same lever that controls your windshield wipers, and all the data comes to you through a single 3″ display in the center of your field of view, directly above the steering wheel.

  13. I’ve always thought the same. Its not about your eyes being off the road as much as its about your MIND being off the road.

  14. I like the idea but politically I don’t think it will ever happen.

    Thankfully, in 10 years or so the majority of the cars on the road will be self-driven, and the humans inside will be free to distract themselves to their hearts content without endangering any lives.

  15. There’s no reason to prevent passengers from making phone calls.

    Perhaps the jammer could be enabled only if the car detects that nobody’s in any of the seats other than the driver’s.

  16. I suppose you could do something like that although I wonder if passengers talking on the phone is also possibly a distraction to the driver? To tell you the truth I’ve never even liked the idea of stereos in cars. Anything which interferes with any of the driver’s senses can be potentially distracting.

  17. I don’t see how passengers talking on the phone would be any more of a distraction than passengers talking amongst themselves.

  18. It probably wouldn’t be. Some people (and I’ve had relatives like that) can’t concentrate on driving if there’s any extraneous noise whatsoever in the car. When we rode with people like that, the rules were no radio, no talking, no fussing.

  19. Hi Susan, do you know the authors or title of this study you mention from ten years ago, contrasting hands-free devices with passengers? I would be interested in checking it out!

  20. A few years ago I was on an entrance ramp to a highway, radio playing, windows open. I hear my phone ring, glance over to look at it and hit the car in front of me at 2 mph! . Turns out the phone had not rung at all – it was a sound effect on a commercial and it sounded exactly like my ring tone!

    Ahh distracted driving!

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