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Hands-free in-car technology is not risk-free

Consumer Reports News: June 12, 2013 06:38 AM

It is clear that taking your eyes off the road while driving is dangerous and distracting, but are hands-free technologies that make it easier to text and talk distracting, as well? A new report finds that even with both hands on the wheel, mental distractions can dangerously undermine a driver's attention.

The study found that even when a driver's hands are on the wheel, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, and drivers miss visual cues on the road when using voice-activated technologies.

Partnered with the AAA Foundation, researchers at the University of Utah measured brainwaves, eye movement, and reaction time to evaluate a driver's mental workload as they tried to multitask behind the wheel. The methodology borrowed from the established science of aviation psychology to study the mental load for performing a range of in-car activities.

The results were ranked on a scale of mental distraction, ranging from 1 to 3. The task of listening to the radio is defined as a category "1" with a minimal risk. Talking on a cell-phone hands-free or handheld was a "2" or moderate risk and listening, and responding to in-vehicle voice-activated email features was categorized as a "3" or an extensive risk.

Based on these findings, AAA is appealing to the public to not use voice-to-text features and is concerned about a public crisis as infotainment systems in vehicles are projected to increase five-fold by 2018. They urge the automotive and electronics industries to limit voice-activated technology to only core driving-related functions, such as setting the temperature or cruise control. In addition, they recommend disabling voice-to-text for social media, email, and text messaging while a vehicle is in motion.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently set distracted driving guidelines for automakers to follow when developing their interactive in-car dash systems. The agency is now working on guidelines for connecting and accessing a smart phone and other portable electronic device features in vehicles and using voice-control systems.

For more research and to learn what you can do to be safe behind the wheel, see our special section on distracted driving.

New research shows what really distracts drivers
Researchers weigh in on the issue of distracted driving
The 2-second rule: Government sets distracted driving guidelines for automakers
Connected cars: A new risk

Liza Barth

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