Using hands-free device in cars dangerously distracting to drivers: Study

By Christian Bautista | Oct 08, 2014 09:33 AM EDT

Using in-dash phone systems may be more distracting than making a phone call on a standard smartphone, a new study claims.

The findings add to mounting evidence that hands-free technology may not be as safe as previously thought.

According to new research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the University of Utah, in-dash systems may increase mental distraction, elevating the risk of crashes and accidents. This contradicts popular belief. According to AAA, three out of four drivers believe auto phone systems are safe to use.

The findings may prompt manufacturers to revise their marketing strategies for their hands-free products. Auto phone systems have been sold as safety features. Such claims have been proven inaccurate with the study, and manufacturers may soon be required to change the way they advertise their products.

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"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," Bob Darbelnet, chief executive officer of AAA, said. "We now understand that current shortcomings in these products, intended as safety features, may unintentionally cause greater levels of cognitive distraction."

The research team conducted the study by measuring the reaction time of drivers through equipment such as heart rate monitors. They ranked common voice-activated commands based on the level of cognitive distraction that each task generated. The team divided tasks, such as updating social media and composing text messages, through a five-category system that is based on the rating scheme for hurricanes.

The study found that using Siri, the digital assistant for Apple iPhones, generated a high level of mental distraction. Hands-free use of Siri was given a high category 4 ranking. The ranking is higher than other common hands-free tasks. The use of hands-free or hand-held cell phones to make calls had a category 2 rating. The use of speech-to-text tools to compose emails and texts, on the other hand, had a category 3 rating.

While the study dents the usefulness of hands-free systems, it does not completely eliminate it as an option. AAA expressed optimism that hands-free technology can be improved to lessen cognitive distraction.

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