Hands-Free Doesn't Necessarily Mean Distraction-Free

Hands Free TextingIt was predictable that the wave of awareness and education campaigns about the safety risks of distracted driving would lead the technology industry to introduce alternative options such as hands-free texting and other forms of communication.

But it was much less predictable that these forms of communication could eventually prove to be just as dangerous for American drivers.

In a study conducted by the American Automobile Association (AAA), researchers found that the use of voice to dictate and send text messages and emails from behind the wheel is actually just as distracting – if not more distracting – as talking on a cell phone is.

Hands-Free Texting Seems Exciting

The hands-free texting and voice technology that is becoming more and more common in newer model vehicles in the U.S. is touted as an exciting feature that makes driving both safer and more convenient.

It has been marketed as a big selling point for manufacturers of newer cars, and many television commercials focus solely on a vehicle’s intelligence and ability to understand voice commands.

And initially the concept of making voice commands to control a computer without having to take your eyes off of the roadway seems logically sound. But according to the AAA researchers, the mental capacity that is required to execute standard voice commands for hands-free texting is just as distracting as holding onto a cell phone and having a conversation with another person.

In their report, researchers explained that speech-to-text systems actually require a greater overall level of concentration than even some of the more traditionally distracting behaviors like talking on a cell phone or listening to books on tape.

‘Tunnel Vision’ and Driver Distraction

Researchers say that a greater level of concentration that is required by a driver in order to perform a given task increases the driver’s chances of developing ‘tunnel vision’ or ‘inattention blindness,’ which makes it difficult for a driver to perform regular driving functions like scanning the roadway for obstacles or utilizing mirrors.

“People aren’t seeing what they need to see to drive. That’s the scariest part to me,” says Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Police accident investigative reports are filled with comments like the ‘looked, but did not see.’ That’s what drivers tell them. We used to think they were lying, but now we know that’s actually true.”

According to the AAA researchers, there are an estimated 9 million cars and trucks on the road with ‘infotainment’ systems – the common term used to describe high-capacity computer systems that are used both for information and entertainment purposes and that allow for drivers to utilize hands-free texting. However, what’s important about these vehicles is that AAA estimates there will be around 62 million of them by 2018.

There are multiple studies that have been conducted on the issue of hands-free texting and communications systems, and some of the results of these studies are conflicting. Many experts contend that the inconsistencies are a result of a lack of data, and that more time and research will paint a clearer picture of just how safe hands-free texting and driving is. But the bottom line is that doing anything behind the wheel besides driving requires does limit drivers’ attention at least to some extent and, therefore, increases the odds of a distracted driver causing a crash.

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