Hands-Free Technologies are not as Safe as Drivers Think

January 5, 2016

Researchers at the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety recently found that dangerous mental distractions can remain a threat for nearly 30 seconds after they are eliminated. For example, a person changing a CD, dialing a number or using voice commands to send a text message could continue being distracted by thinking about the action for many seconds afterward. It only takes a few seconds of inattention to cause a major accident. This brings researchers to highlight their concerns about these unexpected but dangerous lingering distractions, which show that many new hands-free technologies may not be as safe as people assume they are.


The researchers said that lingering mental distraction and its effects may become an untimely surprise for drivers. Distracted motorists can hit pedestrians, miss stop signs and swerve into other vehicles on the road as a result of their minds trying to readjust from the distraction to the task and back to driving. In their research, they found that the distance traveled by drivers who were still distracted after a task was about the length of three football fields at a speed of 25 miles per hour. This was for the most distracting tasks. For the least distracting tasks, drivers showed a continued state of distraction for about 15 seconds after completing the task.


Experts said that all drivers should exercise extreme caution when using any hands-free devices and voice-activated systems. They can pose a danger even when traffic seems light or when the car is stopped. For example, a distracted driver at a stoplight may accidentally let his or her foot off of the brake pedal and rear-end another vehicle. Also, a person who sends a voice-activated text immediately before a stoplight turns green may still be distracted when pressing the gas pedal. This could result in anything from rear-ending another car to hitting a pedestrian while turning.


To ensure a reliable conclusion, researchers tested the hands-free technologies used in 10 different 2015 vehicles with three popular types of smartphones. Their results showed that all systems created significant distractions with any type of phone used, and the results all displayed levels of distraction that were considered potentially unsafe. However, the systems that had shorter distraction times were quicker to use, easier to use and had fewer error risks.


To evaluate mental distraction, researchers used a five-point scale. The first category represented a low level of distraction, and the top category represented the maximum level of distraction. By AAA's standards, a mental distraction that poses a danger while driving is anything with a rating of two or more. The system that performed the best was in the Chevy Equinox, and the Mazda 6's system performed the poorest. While the Google Now program performed the best for smartphones, the Apple Siri program performed the poorest. Using the mobile devices to send text messages or update social media accounts resulted in the highest levels of distraction.


Safety issues are increasing for drivers as more voice-activated technologies and hands-free devices are marketed to motorists each year. Researchers warned motorists that the systems and devices are not free of risks even though they require less physical involvement. In addition to this, people should not assign unrealistic amounts of trust in hands-free safety features of a car even though they are endorsed by the vehicle's manufacturer.


To better outline the risks, AAA compared different categories to tasks. The bottom category was equal to listening to an audio book or the radio, and the second category was comparable to talking on the phone. Sending voice-activated texts was equal to the third category. The fourth category was equal to updating a Facebook or other social media status, and the top category was equal to a test that could overload a driver's mind and attention. As a rule, researchers said that manufacturers and developers should try to make devices that rank on the bottom level one category. Although this does not ensure the safety of motorists, it reduces the risks of longer attention interruptions.


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