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According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), over 3,300 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2011. An additional 387,000 were injured. Engaging in visual-manual subtasks, like reaching for a phone, dialing, and texting, have been found to increase the risk of getting into a crash by three times.

Researchers are looking for solutions. Current state laws may ban texting, but still allow hands-free calling. New cars are now coming out with hands-free technology built into the dashboard, reportedly to help drivers avoid distracting behavior like picking up the phone and punching buttons.

Most consumers now see hands-free operations as a less distracting and less dangerous option while driving, but new research suggests that hands-free may be just as dangerous.

AAA Study Shows Hands-Free Not Risk-Free

A recent study by the American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety casts doubt on the safety of hands-free devices. For the study, researchers observed drivers engaging in common tasks, from listening to an audio book or talking on the phone to listening and responding to voice-activated emails. They measured these activities using established research protocols from aviation psychology and a variety of performance metrics, then rated the levels of mental distraction the drivers experienced for each task.

The results showed:

  • Listening to the radio ranked as a category “1” level of distraction—minimal risk.
  • Talking on a cell phone—whether handheld or hands-free—resulted in a category “2” level of distraction—moderate risk.
  • Listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features increased mental workload and distraction levels to a category “3”—extensive risk.

“These findings reinforce previous research that hands-free is not risk-free,” said AAA Foundation President and CEO Peter Kissinger.

Auto Makers Embracing Infotainment Systems

Those who have shopped for new cars lately have probably seen the new technology built into some dashboards. Many now have voice-activated web searching capability, play incoming texts and emails, and enable you to book tickets to a movie. The AAA predicts that by 2018, we’ll see a five-fold increase in these infotainment systems.

The auto industry says they’re helping to increase highway safety by installing these systems, which they claim meet consumer demands and help keep drivers’ hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. “We believe that hands on the wheel, eyes directly ahead is the best policy for being able to prevent driver distraction,” Jim Pisz, corporate manager of North American business strategy at Toyota, told Huffington Post.

In light of the new research, however, this assumption may be flat-out wrong. The AAA is calling for action, asking car manufacturers to consider limiting these potentially dangerous distractions in cars. Lead author of the AAA study David Strayer noted that just pushing everything to a speech-based interface—and assuming that when the eyes are on the road and the hands are on the wheel that the driver won’t be impaired—would be the wrong assumption to make.


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