Study: Voice-based technology doesn’t always prevent driver distraction

Most people in Albuquerque understand the dangers of using handheld cellphones to talk, text or handle other tasks while driving. However, many drivers think they can safely use hands-free devices, which are built directly into some vehicles and frequently touted as a solution to the problem of distracted driving. However, research indicates that even these devices may be distracting enough to increase accident and injury risk.

Overly demanding technology

According to The Los Angeles Times, researchers from the University of Utah and AAA recently compared the level of cognitive distraction that several hands-free, in-vehicle infotainment systems create. A secondary study surveyed the distraction associated with one widely used personal assistant phone app. Participants in the primary study drove specialized test vehicles while researchers monitored their heart rates and other variables to determine how distracted they were.

Researchers concluded that hands-free, in-car systems and the popular phone app are not as safe as advertised, as the following findings illustrate:

  • The use of four out of six systems surveyed was rated as more distracting than carrying on a conversation via handheld cellphone.
  • The systems that were error-prone put drivers at a greater risk of accidents. Many of these systems demanded significant concentration, since drivers had to worry about choosing phrasing that the system would recognize or correcting errors that the system made.
  • The hands-free phone app prolonged the time that some drivers spent distracted because it failed to give users a way to correct errors without completely starting a task over.

According to The Los Angeles Times, automakers contend that voice-based systems spare drivers from the known risks of manual and visual distractions, which are more clearly documented than the risks associated with cognitive distraction. However, research suggests that cognitive distraction may be just as dangerous as other forms of distraction.

Effects of mental distraction

The National Safety Council reports that drivers who are looking at the road but focused on mentally demanding tasks show significant impairments. These drivers suffer from a phenomenon known as "inattention blindness," in which the brain overlooks things in the immediate visual environment. This impairment may cause a distracted driver to miss important visual cues, such as upcoming red lights.

Performing two cognitive tasks can also lead to delayed reaction times, since the brain switches between the two tasks instead of attempting to perform them simultaneously. In fact, a University of Utah study found that drivers with blood alcohol content levels of .08 percent, which is the legal BAC limit, display faster response times than drivers who are talking on cellphones.

Ongoing danger to drivers

These findings suggest that even well-designed hands-free systems may still be too demanding. Still, many people believe these systems are a safe alternative to handheld cellphones. State laws that ban handheld cellphones while allowing hands-free devices may reinforce this misunderstanding. The expansion of laws like New Mexico's ban for novice drivers, which covers handheld and hands-free devices, could help drivers gain a more realistic understanding of the risks of hands-free devices.

In the meantime, distracted driving accidents may affect many people in New Mexico. After experiencing one of these accidents, anyone who has sustained injuries should meet with a personal injury attorney to discuss the circumstances and the available legal options.