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Michael Phelan
Michael Phelan
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Hands Free Is Not Risk Free

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The response from the automobile industry to safety concerns about drivers distracted by electronic gadgets has resulted in more electronic gadgets. By 2019, more than half of all new cars will intergrate voice recognition software. Many current models enable drivers to use voice-activated, Internet-enabled systems to dictate and send texts and e-mails and update one's Facebook page. Some may think this is safe because it is being performed hands free.

Not so, according to a new study released by AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety. This study shows that these voice-activated systems create an even worse safety risk than manual texting or e-mailing by taking a driver's mind off the road. What makes the use of these speech-to-text systems so risky is that they create a significant cognitive distraction. The brain is so taxed interacting with the system that, even with hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, the driver’s reaction time and ability to process what is happening on the road are impaired.

As reported in the New York Times, the research was led by David Strayer, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah who for two decades has applied the principles of attention science to driver behavior. His research has showed, for example, that talking on a phone while driving creates the same level of crash risk as someone with a 0.08 blood-alcohol level, the legal level for intoxication across the country.

In this latest study, he and a team of researchers compared the impact on drivers of different activities, including listening to a book on tape or the radio, and talking on a hand-held phone or hands-free phone.

The researchers compared how the subjects performed when they were not driving with two other conditions: when using a driver simulator and in a car equipped with tools aimed at measuring how well they drove. The researchers used eye-scanning technology to see where driver attention was focused and also measured the electrical activity in the brain.

Mr. Strayer said the results were consistent across all the tests in finding that speech-to-text technology caused a higher level of cognitive distraction than any of the other activities. The research showed, for instance, that the person interacting with speech to text was less likely than in other activities to scan a crosswalk for pedestrians. And that driver showed lowered activity in networks of the brain associated with driving, indicating that those networks were impaired by the interaction with the technology.

Mr. Strayer said that the reason for the heavy load created by the technology was not totally clear. One reason appears to be the amount of effort required to talk to the dashboard, which is greater than talking to a person, who can interrupt and ask for clarification.

The bottom line is that distracted driving is dangerous no matter the cause of the distraction. The last thing we need is for more of today's stressed-out drivers to be better connected to the office and their social media while navigating a multi-ton vehicle at high speeds. A cognitively distracted driver is not paying attention to his or her primary task–driving.