AAA Study Finds Hands-Free Tech Dangerously Distracting

AAA is warning drivers about the dangers of distracted driving from features that will soon be commonplace in new automobiles. Technology embedded in cars now allow drivers to draft speech-to-text emails, update Facebook and even purchase movie tickets. But research out of the University of Utah shows that drivers experience a high level of distraction while using these features — even when hands are on the wheel and eyes are on the road. Melissa Block speaks with the study leader, David Strayer, about his findings.

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The connected car promises voice-activated systems that let drivers dictate emails and texts, make a dinner reservation or update their Facebook page, all while behind the wheel. Some cars already have these options. Many more are on the way. Carmakers say it's safer than fiddling around with a smartphone.

But a new study from AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety says these voice-activated systems are highly distracting and risky. The study was led by David Strayer. He's a professor of cognition and neuroscience at the University of Utah. Professor Strayer, thanks for coming in.

DAVID STRAYER: Glad to be here.

BLOCK: You studied drivers both on the road and in the simulator, I gather, and you exposed them to various sources of possible distraction. What were they? And what did you find?

STRAYER: Well, we looked at a number of things that people do in the car from listening to the radio up to interacting with some of these newer voice messaging systems where you talk to the car to read emails or send text messages.

And we tried to put everything on an even playing field and then develop a rating scale that went from the undistracted driver, which should be a level one, and then a driver who's completely overloaded with mental activity, which would be category five. I guess the good news for you is that the drivers who are listening to the radio don't seem to show much of a distraction.

BLOCK: We'd like to hear that. That's great.

STRAYER: We also don't see a lot of distraction with listening to an audio book. So those tend to be relatively low, category one in terms of our rating system. People who are talking on a cellphone, either handheld or hands-free, we found that they had a category two level of impairment. That's a significant notch up from what we saw from the undistracted driver.

But I think one of the things that was a red flag in our study was that when people were starting to send and receive emails with a pure voice-based system where they can just listen to the messages and then read, reply, delete or whatever, but their hands are on the steering wheel and their eyes are on the road, we found that that was a category three level of impairment.

BLOCK: That category three that you're mentioning, what might that be comparable to in terms of distraction level?

STRAYER: With cellphones, the epidemiological data say that you're about four times more likely to be involved in a crash. So this is going to be at or above that level of crash risk, something that many safety experts are concerned about because if you see more and more people using this technology and kind of not paying attention to the road, you're going to start seeing, you know, lots of more impaired drivers. And they're going to start missing traffic lights, and they're going to miss a pedestrian who may be walking across the crosswalk. So it's those missed events.

BLOCK: This does seem to be, though, the wave of the future and carmakers, the industry group, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, doesn't sound too happy with this study. They say people want to be connected and they're concerned that your findings are misleading, that they seem to be indicating that handheld and hands-free devices are equally risky.

STRAYER: Generally, when we think about a driver who's distracted, they can be distracted because they take their eyes off the road, and that's a visual source of distraction.

We haven't got the guidelines in place yet for cognitive distraction. But what's happened is there has been a move to try and say, let's remove the manual and the visual components associated with interacting with some of these technologies and just go with a system that does use voice-based interactions.

Our message is don't be lulled into a kind of false sense of security that those are going to be safer. And so at some point, there has to be a dialogue, a dialogue that's pretty broad-based about what we're willing to tolerate in terms of a distracted level of a driver and what we think is unacceptable.

And we've done that with alcohol. At some point, I think that either based on kind of social conventions or policy or education, we need to come to the same level of driver distraction.

BLOCK: Professor Strayer, thanks for coming in.

STRAYER: It was a pleasure.

BLOCK: David Strayer is a professor at the University of Utah. He was the principal investigator on the study for AAA measuring cognitive distraction in the vehicle.

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