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Even Hands-Free Texting Is Distracting to Drivers

Jun 14, 2013

The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has called for more research to determine whether the government should impose regulations on hands-free texting behind the wheel.

David Strickland, NHTSA head, was responding to a study released this week by the Automobile Association of America (AAA) that suggested that the use of voice-activated technology by those behind the wheel of a car may be even more dangerous than using a hand-held device, the Detroit News reports.

Automakers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing voice-activated technology to allow drivers not only to make calls but also send emails and texts. Manufacturers pitch these technologies as being safer because drivers’ eyes are on the road and their hands are on the wheel. But the AAA study suggests that the level of the driver’s distraction – and therefore the danger – may be greater because drivers are attempting complex tasks that require greater concentration.

AAA president and CEO Robert Darbelnet sees a “looming public safety crisis” in the proliferation of voice-activated technologies, and notes the existence of “the common misconception that hands-free means risk-free.” AAA calculates that 9 million vehicles now on the road are equipped to send voice-activated messages and that number is expected to reach more than 62 million by 2018, according to the Detroit News.

The AAA study, which the University of Utah assisted with, tested 100 Salt Lake drivers, ages 18 to 36, who spent four hours driving on the road and in a simulator wearing special skullcaps to measure brain function, according to the Detroit News. Cameras and instruments tracked eye and head movements and reaction times to see if the drivers were watching their surroundings and to measure response times to traffic lights and objects in their field of vision.

The researchers say that drivers involved in distracting tasks develop "inattention blindness." They stop scanning the road, ignore side and rearview mirrors, and may fail to notice things in front of them, including red lights and pedestrians, according to CBS News.

Jacob Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety advocacy and research, said using voice commands to interact with email is “fundamentally unsafe to do while driving — more dangerous even from the cognitive or mental aspect than even using a hand-held or hands-free cell phone to have a conversation.”

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