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AAA Study Finds Hands-Free Devices Still Dangerous for Drivers

A new study finds that hands-free devices in cars aren’t as safe as people think.

Research by AAA found that hands-free technology in cars gives drivers a false sense of security.

Bruce Hamilton, manager of research and communications with the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said an increase in mental workload slows reaction time, causing drivers to scan the road less and miss visual cues.

“We were looking with brain wave activity and measures of driving performance to show that even though they were able to look at the road and keep their hands on that steering wheel, their brains were still taken off the driving task and their driving performance suffered as a result,” Hamilton said.

Cognitive distraction expert David Strayer conducted the study at the University of Utah. The research team mounted cameras inside the vehicles to monitor eye and head movement, a Detection-Response-Task device was used to record the driver’s reaction time, and an electroencephalographic cap was used to measure brain activity to monitor mental workload. All tests were compared to a control group driving with no distractions.

The drivers were given a series of seven tasks to complete while driving: listen to the radio, listen to an audiobook, drive with a passenger, use a hand-held cell phone, use a hands-free cell phone, use a speech-to-text system and complete a complicated verbal or mathematical problem. All tasks were measured on a scale of one to five — with five being the highest risk of distraction.

Listening to the radio and an audio book both scored below a 2. The verbal or math problem scored a 5. Driving with a passenger, using a hand-held cellphone and using a hands-free cell phone all huddled together between 2 and 3, with hand-held cellphone use being more dangerous by just .18. Using a speech-to-text messaging system in a vehicle was the second most distracting activity with a 3.06 score.

A 2012 study by the National Safety Council had similar results, finding that drivers on cell phones had slower reaction times than a driver with a blood alcohol level of .08. The study also showed people using a cellphones while driving, hand-held or hands-free, are four times more likely to be injured or damage property while driving.

There are currently no statistics on how likely drivers using speech-to-text systems are to get into an accident, according to Hamilton, but that is going to be AAA’s next endeavor.

According to the National Safety Council, about 23 percent of all car accidents in the United States in 2011 involved drivers using cell phones.

Hamilton said there are about 9 million new shipments of cars featuring “infotainment” systems in 2013 and that number is expected to grow to 62 million in the next five years.

With these technologies becoming more and more common, Hamilton said drivers need to stay focused on the road to avoid those types of distractions.

“You may still be endangering yourself and those around you if your focus is being diverted from the driving task,” Hamilton said. “So, as always, we say, ‘eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, mind on the task of driving.’ Have your head in the game and your mind in the car.”