By Justin Hyde @ Motoramic
The greatest challenge to stopping distracted driving comes from the fact that it's a mental state rather than a physical one. We can measure vehicle speed, and alcohol stays in the blood for hours, but drivers can go from paying attention to distraction with no notice and sudden, tragic effects.
Yet so far, attempts to stop distraction have focused on physical changes — making it illegal for drivers to use their hands to text or dial, while allowing voice commands or Bluetooth links.
But a new study backed by AAA contends voice-control systems can be just as distracting to drivers as texting by hand, and that a system's design, whether it's an automaker's in-dash controls or Apple's Siri assistant, can make distractions worse.
“We already know that drivers can miss stop signs, pedestrians and other cars while using voice technologies because their minds are not fully focused on the road ahead,” said Bob Darbelnet, chief executive officer of AAA, in a statement.
“We now understand that current shortcomings in these products, intended as safety features, may unintentionally cause greater levels of cognitive distraction.”
The study by Joel M. Cooper, Hailey Ingebretsen, and David L. Strayer at the University of Utah had 36 drivers take six new vehicles — one each from Chevy, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Hyundai and Mercedes — through a short loop.
Each driver had to complete a series of voice commands through the dashboards, including dialing a phone and changing music in the car; meanwhile, their heart rates were recorded and they had to respond to a flashing light strapped to their heads, as a measurement of how hard their brains were working.
The researchers had used similar setups to test the distraction level of everyday driving activities on a 1-to-5 scale; listening to the radio ranks as 1, while trying to write an email using voice commands ranks as a 3, and being so distracted as to not be able to focus on driving was a 5. In lab tests, Apple's Siri system scored a 4.
Of the six models tested, Toyota's Entune proved to be easiest to use without distraction — about on the level of listening to an audiobook — while Chevy's MyLink was found to be the most distracting.
The researchers say the main reasons for the scores were complexity and errors; the Toyota system was simple and usually accurate, while the Chevy system often made mistakes. (The drivers themselves ranked the Mercedes system as worst, because it was picky about how commands had to be issued, but that didn't apparently affect their attention.)
And while the researchers have measured in several dimensions how distractions can form, they have not been able to show whether greater levels of distraction lead to more crashes. Yet the results are enough for AAA to continue to urge drivers to not use any voice controls behind the wheel, and to push automakers for changes in their in-dash systems. The question now is whether anyone is listening.