Study: Many Hands-Free Systems Don’t Prevent Distracted Driving

To many people in Eugene, texting or talking on a handheld cellphone while driving is a clear and unacceptable risk. However, many of these people may believe using hands-free voice-recognition systems, which are often built into new vehicles or available on smartphones, represents a safe and even responsible choice that is unlikely to cause a car crash. Unfortunately, research shows that many hands-free systems create just as great of a distraction as handheld cellphones.

Impairing effects of distraction

According to the National Safety Council, the cognitive distraction associated with hands-free systems is still enough to impair drivers. A Carnegie Mellon University study indicates simply listening to language dampens activity by 37 percent in the part of the brain that analyzes moving images, which plays a key role in driving. Actively talking on a cellphone can blind a driver to up to half of his or her immediate surroundings, including important cues, such as red lights. Presumably, speaking and listening to a voice-based system produces similar effects.

Many of these impairments occur because the brain simply does not multitask as effectively as people believe. Rather than taking on two tasks at the same time, the brain rapidly juggles between the tasks. This means that there are many moments when distracted drivers are not focusing on the road at all, which can result in missed cues, delayed reaction times and deadly consequences.

Errors, inaccuracy worsen distraction

Two recent studies from the University of Utah and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety put voice-based systems designed to reduce distraction to the test. According to Fox News, participants used the systems while driving a car in a supervised setting, performing a simulation and taking laboratory tests. Researchers found that some systems made errors or proved complicated to utilize, resulting in significant driver distraction. For instance, researchers observed the following issues:

  • One driver had to take his attention off the road and hurry to terminate a phone call when a voice-based phone app accidentally dialed 911 instead of the requested number.
  • While using the same app, two drivers rear-ended other vehicles during the simulation.
  • Other drivers had to spend extensive time correcting errors or rephrasing their requests, resulting in both distraction and frustration.

Alarmingly, using four of the six in-car systems tested was ranked more distracting than using a cellphone while driving, as was using the app that placed the 911 call.

Distraction-related accidents

In Oregon, drivers can still legally use hands-free technology. However, if these inattentive drivers cause accidents, they may still be found negligent for failing to show due care to other motorists by focusing on the road. Anyone who has been hurt in a car accident involving a distracted driver should consult with an attorney about pursuing compensation for the injury.