By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
The increasingly popular voice-activated, in-car technologies thatallow drivers to text, talk on the phone or even use Facebook whiledriving still allow for dangerous mental distraction, according to astudy.
In the most comprehensive study of its kind to look atdrivers' mental distraction, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety foundthat as mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time slows,brain function is compromised, and drivers scan the road less and missvisual clues, researchers say. This could potentially result in driversbeing unable to see items right in front of them, such as stop signs orpedestrians.
The study sought to measure the impact of cognitiveor mental distraction on driving. The other two types of driverdistraction, visual and manual, which involve the eyes and the handsdoing something like looking at a cellphone while sending a text havebeen studied much more extensively.
"There's a sort of arms race(among auto manufacturers) over what's going into the car these days,"said David Strayer, a University of Utah cognitive distraction expertwho co-authored the new report. "Any function that can be put in the caris being put in the car without a full examination of whether it shouldgo in the car."
The foundation's research, which involved 150drivers, follows a smaller study by the Texas Transportation Institutereleased in April, which found that texting while driving using avoice-to-text application was just as dangerous as texting manually.
Driversin the AAA Foundation study were analyzed while engaging in eightdifferent distracting activities as they "drove" on a sophisticateddriving simulator and in an instrumented vehicle on residential streetsin Salt Lake City.
Researchers measured brain waves, eye movementand other metrics to assess what happens as drivers listened to an audiobook, talked on the phone or responded to voice-activated emails whiledriving. They found that, as drivers' mental workload increased, theirreaction time slowed, their field of vision narrowed and they missedvisual cues.
"This is a reminder to the general public thatdistracted driving is real," said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO ofAAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "Three out of four drivers believethat hands-free is better than handheld. But hands-free is notrisk-free, and we now have new evidence that clearly demonstrates that."
Kissingersaid the foundation "is calling upon auto manufacturers and theelectronics industry to work with us so we can learn as much aspossible. Before any more wholesale installation of new technology,let's step back and measure how the technology affects mentaldistraction."
The group is also urging the National HighwayTraffic Safety Administration to broaden its driver distractionguidelines to include the kind of mental distraction associated withvoice-activated calling.
Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of theConsumer Electronics Association, today challenged the validity of theAAA Foundation study. "We believe this AAA-sponsored study suffers from anumber of methodology flaws, and, as a result, its broad conclusionsabout voice-to-text technology should be questioned," he said. "Thisstudy could hardly be considered naturalistic as it relied on youngdrivers in unfamiliar cars, wearing a type of helmet and driving on adefined course when compared to studies which track real drivers in realsituations."
In March, ABI Research, a market intelligencecompany specializing in global technology markets, projected thatinfotainment systems in new vehicles would jump from 9 million in 2013to 62 million in 2018.