Hands-Free Devices Not Risk-Free While Driving, Study Says

WASHINGTON (Los Angeles Times/MCT) —

Hands-free, voice-activated automobile systems that enable drivers to talk, text and email distract motorists and delay reaction time, according to a study released Wednesday.

“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,” said Robert L. Darbelnet, AAA’s president and chief executive. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety sponsored the study.

The AAA chief warned of a “looming public safety crisis,” citing a projected fivefold increase in info-tainment systems in vehicles, from 9 million this year to more than 62 million in 2018.

University of Utah researchers, who conducted the study measuring such things as drivers’ brain waves and reaction time, rated the levels of mental distraction.

Use of speech-to-text systems to send and receive text or email messages drew the most concern, producing a “relatively high level of cognitive distraction,” according to the report.

It rated listening to the radio 1.21 or a book on tape 1.75, a small increase in cognitive distraction. But speaking on a hands-free phone, 2.27, was rated only slightly less distracting than using a hand-held phone, 2.45. Use of speech-to-text devices to send and receive text or email messages received a 3.06.

“The data suggest that a rush to voice-based interactions in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety,” the study said.

Gary Shapiro, president and chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Association, said in a statement that the AAA-sponsored study “suffers from a number of methodology flaws, and, as a result, its broad conclusions about voice-to-text technology should be questioned.”

The association said the report relied on young drivers in unfamiliar cars, wearing a type of helmet and driving on a defined course. “It did not track real drivers in real situations,” Shapiro said.

“We encourage AAA to educate their vast membership of American drivers to use consumer electronics appropriately and in accordance with state laws when behind the wheel,” he added.

The AAA is calling on the auto and electronics industry to explore limiting the use of voice-activated technology. But it stopped short of calling for legislation.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said it would review the study but expressed concern it “could send a misleading message since it suggests that hand-held and hands-free devices are equally risky.

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