With three out of four drivers believing that hands-free technology is safe to use, Americans may be surprised to learn that these popular new vehicle features may actually increase mental distraction, according to new research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. This research can serve as guidance to manufacturers who increasingly market hands-free systems as safety features. The good news for consumers is that it is possible to design hands-free technologies that are less cognitively distracting, according to the research.
The results, which build on the first phase of the Foundation’s research conducted last year, suggest that developers can improve the safety of their products by making them less complicated, more accurate and generally easier to use – a point AAA hopes to use in working with manufacturers to make hands-free technologies as safe as possible for consumers. While manufacturers continue their efforts to develop and refine systems that reduce distractions, AAA encourages drivers to minimize cognitive distraction by limiting the use of most voice-based technologies.
“We already know that drivers can miss stop signs, pedestrians and other cars while using voice technologies because their minds are not fully focused on the road ahead,” said Bob Darbelnet, chief executive officer of AAA. “We now understand that current shortcomings in these products, intended as safety features, may unintentionally cause greater levels of cognitive distraction.”
“Distracted driving is one of the riskiest driving activities that many motorists engage in regularly,” said Alice Bisno, the Automobile Club of Southern California’s senior vice president for public affairs. “With all the new technologies that drivers can use in their cars today and in the near future – from cell phones to Google Glass and other wearable devices – it is vital that drivers understand how much technology can distract them.”
Recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) research shows that 3,328 people died in 2012 in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver. An additional 421,000 people were injured in these collisions, according to the Auto Club’s Senior Researcher Steven Bloch.
“The new research findings show that drivers are particularly at risk when they use electronic devices with complex, difficult-to-navigate voice systems that require them to think about and respond to their devices,” said Bloch. “It can be complex enough for drivers to interact with devices, but it raises real traffic safety concerns when devices don’t operate properly and a driver has to take additional time and mental effort away from the road to correct them, as is all too often the case.”
In 2014, there were more than 349 million wireless subscribers in the U.S. and in numerous driver surveys, a high percentage admit they regularly talk or text while driving. “The Auto Club’s roadside observational research that it conducted over the first five years after implementation of California’s cell phone and texting laws have shown a sharp rise in hands-free device use,” added Bloch.
Using instrumented test vehicles, heart-rate monitors and other equipment designed to measure reaction times, Dr. David Strayer and researchers from the University of Utah evaluated and ranked common voice-activated interactions based on the level of cognitive distraction generated. The team used a five-category rating system, which they created in 2013, similar to that used for hurricanes. The results show:
- The accuracy of voice recognition software significantly influences the rate of distraction. Systems with low accuracy and reliability generated a high level (category 3) of distraction.
- Composing text messages and emails using in-vehicle technologies (category 3) was more distracting than using these systems to listen to messages (category 2).
- The quality of the systems’ voice had no impact on distraction levels - listening to a natural or synthetic voice both rated as a more moderate category 2 level of distraction.
The study also separately assessed Apple’s Siri (version iOS 7) using insight obtained from Apple about Siri’s functionality at the time the research was conducted. Researchers used the same metrics to measure a broader range of tasks including using social media, sending texts and updating calendars. The research revealed that hands- and eyes-free use of Apple’s Siri generated a relatively high category 4 level of mental distraction.
“Technologies used in the car that rely on voice communications may have unintended consequences that adversely affect road safety,” said Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “The level of distraction and the impact on safety can vary tremendously based on the task or the system the driver is using.”
To assess “real-world” impact, Dr. Joel Cooper with Precision Driving Research evaluated the two most common voice-based interactions in which drivers engage – changing radio stations and voice dialing – with the actual voice-activated systems found in six different automakers’ vehicles. On the five point scale, Toyota’s Entune® system garnered the lowest cognitive distraction ranking (at 1.7), which is similar to listening to an audio book. In comparison, the Chevrolet MyLink® resulted in a high level of cognitive distraction (rating of 3.7). Other systems tested included the Hyundai Blue Link (rating 2.2), the Chrysler Uconnect™ (rating 2.7), Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch® (rating 3.0) and the Mercedes COMAND® (rating 3.1).
“It is clear that not all voice systems are created equal, and today’s imperfect systems can lead to driver distraction,” continued Darbelnet. “AAA is confident that it will be possible to make safer systems in the future.”
This phase of the research highlights the variability in demands across all the systems tested. AAA is calling for developers to address key contributing factors to mental distraction including complexity, accuracy and time on task with the goal of making systems that are no more demanding than listening to the radio or an audiobook. AAA also plans to use the findings to continue a dialogue with policy makers, safety advocates and manufacturers.
To view the full report, “Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Vehicle II: Assessing In-Vehicle Voice-based Interactive Technologies,” and other distracted driving materials, visit NewsRoom.AAA.com. This study builds upon groundbreaking research conducted last year, which found that drivers can be dangerously distracted even if their eyes are on the road and their hands are on the wheel. AAA promoted the study in the release: Think You Know All About Distracted Driving? Think Again, Says AAA.