Think You Know All About Distracted Driving? Think Again, Says AAA

Hands-free technologies might make it easier for motorists to text, talk on the phone, or even use Facebook while they drive, but new findings from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety show dangerous mental distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.  The research found that as “mental workload” from distractions increase reaction time slows and brain function is compromised.  Drivers scan the road less, potentially resulting in drivers not seeing stop signs and pedestrians directly in front of them.


The AAA Foundation study, “Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile,” is the most comprehensive study of its kind to look at drivers’ mental distraction and arms AAA with important new evidence to appeal to the public to not use hands-free features, including voice-to-text while their vehicle is in motion.


With a predicted five-fold increase in infotainment systems expected in new vehicles by 2018, AAA is calling for action as a result of this landmark research. “There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies,” said AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet. “It’s time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free,” he added.














“That’s the fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the public about cell phones and distractions.  Seventy-one percent of the public now believe that hands-free is safer than hand-held and 50% of drivers who use hands free devices report that they experience no distraction from using the device,” said the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Senior Vice President for Public Affairs Alice Bisno. “We need to use research like the AAA Foundation's to put a stop to that mythology.” 


Recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) research shows that 3,331 people died in 2011 in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver.  An additional 387,000 people were injured in these collisions.  


In 2012 there were more than 326 million wireless subscribers in the U.S. and in numerous driver surveys a high percentage admit they regularly talk or text while driving.


“The new research findings show mental distraction from electronic device use, even hands-free, delays reaction times that lead motorists to miss common and obvious traffic situations,” according to the Auto Club’s Senior Traffic Safety Researcher Steven A. Bloch, Ph.D.  


“The Auto Club’s roadside observational research that it has conducted over the past five years in Southern California has shown a sharp rise in hands-free device use,” added Bloch.  “We believe that this is a serious problem.  Educational and enforcement efforts to improve traffic safety should emphasize, hands-free is not risk-free.”



In the AAA Foundation study, cognitive distraction expert Dr. David Strayer and his University of Utah research team measured brainwaves, eye movement and other metrics to assess what happens to drivers’ mental workload when they attempt to do multiple things at once, an approach that builds on decades of research in the aerospace and automotive industries. The research included:


  • Cameras mounted inside an instrumented car to track drivers’ eye and head movement.
  • A Detection-Response-Task device known as the “DRT” that recorded driver reaction times in response to red and green lights in a driver’s field of vision.
  • A special electroencephalographic (EEG)-configured skull cap that charted participants’ brain activity and mental workload. 


Using established research protocols borrowed from aviation psychology and performance metrics, drivers listened to an audio book, talked on the phone, and listened to and responded to voice-activated emails while behind the wheel.


Researchers used results to rate levels of mental distraction drivers experienced while performing each task.  Levels of mental distraction are represented on a five-point scale. This is similar to the scale used for hurricanes. Findings showed that:


  • Tasks such as listening to the radio ranked as a category “1” level of distraction or a minimal risk. 
  • Talking on a cell-phone, both handheld and hands-free, resulted in a “2”, or a moderate risk.
  • Listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features increased mental workload and distraction resulting in a “3” rating, or one of extensive risk.


Based on this research, AAA urges the automotive and electronics industries to work jointly with AAA in exploring:


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


AAA also is using the findings to promote dialogue with policy makers, safety advocates, and the automotive and cellular industries to ensure that emerging in-vehicle technologies won’t lead to unintentional compromises in public safety.  As part of this effort, AAA has already met with safety advocates, provided copies of the report to CEOs of all major U.S. automakers and met with representatives from the cellular industry.


“AAA is hopeful that the research will serve as a stepping stone toward working in collaboration with automakers to promote our shared goal of improving safety for all drivers,” said Darbelnet. “Specifically, these increasingly common voice-driven, in-vehicle technologies should be limited to use for just core driving tasks unless the activity results in no significant driver distraction.” 


To view the full Cognitive Distraction in the Vehicle report, the AAA Foundation’s Research Compendium on Cognitive Distraction or AAA’s Distracted Driving Fact Sheet, please visit