Hands-free systems in cars are more distracting than handheld phones, study says

by Gary Richards, San Jose Mercury News

Buy a new car today and you’ll most likely be able to use your voice to send text messages and emails, check your Facebook page or order takeout food while driving. No need to hold a cellphone in your hand.

But using hands-free devices that translate speech into text is actually more distracting than using a handheld phone, a study released Wednesday by AAA’s Foundation for Highway Safety concludes. The finding poses a direct challenge to the direction that many automobile manufacturers, working closely with high-tech firms, are moving.

"We’re addicted to our phones, and once we hear the ping of a text or the ping of an incoming call as we drive, it’s hard to ignore," said Chris Murphy, director of the California Office of Traffic Safety, calling the study’s conclusions a five-alarm warning for motorists.

What makes the use of these speech-to-text systems so risky is that they create a significant cognitive distraction, researchers found. The brain is so engrossed in 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’s happening are impaired.

The new research shows that distracted drivers don’t move their eyes from the road as often, getting a kind of tunnel vision. It means drivers check their mirrors less frequently and are less likely to notice hazards not directly in front of them.

Around 9 million cars are now fitted with voice-recognition systems, and this number is expected to soar to 62 million by 2018.

The new study comes the same week Silicon Valley icon Apple introduced "iOS in the Car" as part of its new operating system. The company says, "iOS in the Car seamlessly integrates your iOS device — and the iOS experience — with your in-dash system. If your vehicle is equipped with iOS in the Car, you can connect your iPhone 5 and interact with it using the car’s built-in display and controls or Siri Eyes Free." Microsoft already offers its own car system, called SYNC, and other tech companies and carmakers are offering such capabilities.

Although such innovations are meant to reduce distracted driving and increase safety, don’t count on it.

"What we really have on our hands is a looming public safety crisis with the proliferation of these vehicles," AAA spokeswoman Yolanda Cade told the Associated Press. She characterized the rush to equip cars with Internet-enabled systems as "an arms race."

AAA says other studies indicate that half of Americans believe that built-in Web-based systems in cars carry little if any risk.

Gloria Bergquist, vice president for public affairs at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Washington, told the New York Times that carmakers are trying to keep consumers connected without having to hold phones while driving — which her group insists is safer.

"We are concerned about any study that suggests that handheld phones are comparably risky to the hands-free systems we are putting in our vehicles," she said. "It is a connected society, and people want to be connected in their car just as they are in their home or wherever."

The AAA study, conducted by researchers at the University of Utah, says speech-to-text systems require greater concentration by drivers than other potentially distracting activities like talking on the phone, talking to a passenger, listening to a book on tape or listening to the radio.

The AAA study compared how drivers performed under various types of distractions, including listening to the radio, talking on a handheld phone and using a hands-free device. It used eye-scanning technology to determine where drivers focused their attention, and also tested reaction time to such visual cues as brake lights.

Wednesday’s report comes on the heels of an increasing number of studies about how dangerous texting while driving is, whether holding the phone or not. Last year, the U.S. National Safety Council estimated that 24 percent of all motor vehicle crashes in the United States involve cellphones. And in January, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported that nearly 35 percent of drivers admitted to reading a text or email while driving and over 26 percent admitted to typing one.

"Our devices are now our primary focus, and driving is a distant second," said motorist Marguerite Sinnett of Morgan Hill. "Many times, I see drivers, including 18-wheelers, slow down, speed up and drift because they are talking on the phone.

"They have no clue about their driving; the phone prevails," she continued. "I see probably about 40 percent of drivers talking on a handheld phone or looking in their laps. It’s hard to put the genie back in the box once it’s out."