Hands-free isn't risk-free: New distracted driving study reveals dangers of hands-free devices
It's no secret that distracted driving is a common factor in many fatal auto accidents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), distracted driving contributes to more than 9 deaths and 1,060 injuries every day in the United States. As our Columbia car accident lawyers know, cell phone use is one of the most notorious forms of distraction, and texting has proven to be especially hazardous for drivers. Texting requires visual, manual, and cognitive attention, meaning it takes a driver's eyes off the road, his hands off the wheel, and his mind off the task of driving. In recent years, new forms of "hands-free" technology have been developed to help discourage driver distraction. However, new studies have recently found that hands-free devices may actually just create a new - and dangerous - source of distraction.
A recent study conducted by Dr. David Strayer and researchers at the University of Utah observed changes in brainwaves, eye movement and other mental capacities when drivers attempted to "multi-task" while operating motor vehicles. To fully examine the effect of these activities on brain function, researchers had drivers engage in relatively common activities: listening to the radio, listening to audio books, talking on the phone, and listening or responding to voice-activated emails. After observing the effects of these cognitive distractions, researchers were able to identify three levels of mental distraction, according to the severity of the distraction created by different tasks. The first category includes tasks that create minimal risks for drivers, such as listening to the radio. The second category consists of more hazardous tasks that create moderate roadway risks, including talking on a cell phone (whether the device is handheld or hands-free). The third category is comprised of the most risky roadway tasks, which include listening and responding to in-vehicle devices and voice-activated features on cellular devices.
According to the study, hands-free and voice-activated devices require drivers to focus on responding to those devices, which lessens the amount of brain activity associated with driving. In other words, the cognitive demands of responding to voice automated devices create hazards for the driver because of the increased mental workload. "These new, speech-based technologies in the car can overload the driver's attention and impair their ability to drive safely," said Dr. Strayer, a Professor of Cognition and Neural Science. "An unintended consequence of trying to make driving safer - by moving to speech-to-text, in-vehicle systems - may actually overload the driver and make them less safe."
These recent findings have led many safety organizations to warn manufacturers and the general public of the dangers accompanied with voice-activated and hands-free devices. In response to Dr. Strayer's study, Robert Darbelnet, President and CEO of AAA, made a statement urging manufacturers of vehicle and electronic devices to consider the risks of building "potentially dangerous mental distractions" into vehicles. Darbelnet also advises manufacturers to add devices that disable voice-activated electronics while vehicles are in use. "Specifically, these increasingly common voice-driven, in-vehicle technologies should be limited to use for just core driving tasks unless the activity results in no significant driver distraction," Darbelnet said.