Are hands free devices and voice activated technology any less distracting for drivers?

Are hands free devices and voice activated technology any less distracting for drivers?

ROCK SPRINGS – With cell phones becoming unavoidable in today’s world, a new study is challenging the safety of voice activated hands free technologies that are allowed in some jurisdictions.

According to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, in 2011 more than 3,300 people were killed in car crashes involving distracted driving, and up to 10% of all collisions that year involved driver distractions.

Vulnerable road users are particularly at risk: A 2013 study in Public Health Reports found that the pedestrian fatality rate due to distracted driving increased 45% from 2005 to 2010, and for cyclists it jumped 32%.

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Regulations intended to reduce distracted driving are inconsistent, and for the moment target only cellphone use. As of 2013, 41 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving; 11 states and the District of Columbia prohibit drivers from using handheld cellphones. Some states prohibit novice drivers from using hands-free devices, but all currently permit adults to do so.

A related 2013 study conducted by University of Utah researchers and sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, “Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile,” comes to similar conclusions. In the study, researchers measured subjects’ reaction times while performing a series of tasks in the laboratory, in driving simulators and while operating instrumented vehicles. Tasks such as listening to the radio or an audio book were found to be moderately distracting.

Conversing with a passenger was more distracting than passive tasks, but less than using a hand-held cellphone. (Passengers in theory provide a measure of security: Because they’re not driving, they can dedicate more cognitive awareness to external events; in addition, they have incentive to watch out for their own well-being.) Finally, the use of speech-to-text systems had a large cognitive distraction rating, more than triple that of operating a car in silence. “The data suggest that a rush to voice-based interactions in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety,” the researchers conclude.