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Tech in cars: Does hands-free mean harmless?

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Motorists know that texting and talking with hand-held mobile phones is risky behaviour, but what about texting, talking or even checking social media accounts via voice-activated controls?

A new study suggests that even as automakers rush to accommodate consumers’ mobile lifestyles by designing hands-free features into their products, drivers can still be dangerously distracted.

The study, released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a non-profit research and education organisation based in the US, has ranked common forms of distraction on a numerical scale of gravity, in the manner of hurricanes. For example:

  • Listening to the radio is a “1” level of distraction, or a minimal risk
  • Talking on a mobile phone, both handheld and hands-free, is a “2,” or a moderate risk
  • Listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features received a “3” ranking, or extensive risk

“We’ve known for a long time that it’s important to keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road,” said Peter Kissinger, president and chief executive of the non-profit, which released its findings on 12 June. “Now we have additional evidence that it’s essential to keep your mind on the driving task at hand. As counter-intuitive as it seems, hands-free is not risk-free. The dangers are real.”

The report, Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile, noted that in-vehicle technologies were expected to increase five-fold in new vehicles by 2018. But while increased hands-free functionality may make drivers feel safer, extensive usage could present a public safety crisis.

The research was conducted by Dr David Strayer, a cognitive distraction expert, and his research team at the University of Utah. The group measured brainwaves, eye movement and other metrics to assess what happens to drivers when they simultaneously perform multiple tasks. Cameras were mounted inside an instrumented car to track eye and head movements. A so-called Detection-Response-Task (DRT) was used to record driver reaction time. The crowning feature, quite literally, was an electroencephalographic (EEG)-configured skull cap, which was used to monitor mental workload. Drivers engaged in common tasks such as listening to audio books, talking on the phone and listening and responding to voice-activated emails.

Over all, Dr Strayer’s team found that mental workload and cognitive distractions increased, reaction time slowed and brain function was compromised. Drivers scanned the road less frequently and missed important visual cues. In real-world driving scenarios, such behaviour could lead to what the authors called inattention blindness, whereby drivers would not register potential hazards, important objects like stop signs or pedestrians that were directly in front of them.

“Police crash reports are filled with examples where the driver looked but did not see a critical item,” Kissinger said.      

The study’s intention, Kissenger added, was to educate the public as well as foment more collaboration with the auto and electronics industries, with an eye toward developing international guidelines and standards for safer “cockpits” for drivers. “The auto industry is a global industry. And this clearly is a global issue,” he said.

Preliminary response from the road safety community has been positive.

David Teater, a senior director at the National Safety Council, a nonprofit US-based advocacy group, said the findings echoed "what cognitive psychologists have known for years." But the scope and findings of the new study surpassed previous ones, he added. “This is certainly a landmark study and the most comprehensive one on cognitive distraction to date. I hope the auto industry and policy makers take a hard look at this research.”

To view the full report, visit NewsRoom.AAA.com.

The auto industry is a global industry. And this clearly is a global issue. — Peter Kissinger

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