Does Hands-Free Mean Risk-Free?

July 19th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

A new study claims that using hands-free devices in cars could be just as distracting as driving with your phone in hand.

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The Responsibility Project

The dangers of texting, emailing and performing other phone-related tasks while driving are so well documented by now that car manufacturers are engaged in what AAA is calling an “arms race” to equip cars with the most advanced voice-activated systems available. These systems would allow drivers to dictate texts, answer emails and even update their Facebook pages using only voice commands. According to electronics consulting firm IMS Research, more than half of all new cars will include some type of voice recognition technology by 2019.

But Yolanda Cade, a spokeswoman for AAA, told the New York Times that this proliferation of hands-free technology actually presents “a looming safety crisis.” Backing up Cade’s assertion is a new study commissioned by AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety and conducted by a research team at the University of Utah.

As noted by the Times, the study is among the most exhaustive examinations of the new in-vehicle technology, and could set the stage for a clash between the auto industry and safety advocates.

But hands-free equals safe, right? David Strayer, a psychology professor and member of the University of Utah research team, told NPR, “New speech-based technologies in the car can overload the driver’s attention and impair their ability to drive safely.” Strayer and his team tracked eye and head movement, charted brain activity and measured reaction times while test drivers in simulators and on the road listened to the car radio, talked on a cellphone – handheld and hands-free – and interacted with voice-activated email features. “We found that interacting with the speech-to-text system was the most cognitively distracting,” Strayer said. Even with hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, the brain was so taxed with using the system that the driver’s reaction time and ability to process what was happening on the road were impaired.

Peter Kissinger of AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety wrote that test drivers using the voice-activated features experienced “a type of tunnel vision or inattention blindness where motorists don’t see potential hazards right in front of them.”

On the other side, reports the Times, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers plans to wait for other academic studies to be conducted since the organization is “extremely concerned that it could send a misleading message that hand-held and hands-free devices are equally risky.”

Is hands-free really the solution or should texting, emailing and using Facebook while driving be done away with entirely?