Unsafe Driver Distractions

AAA urges manufacturers to focus on accuracy and usability.

With three out of four drivers believing hands-free technology is safe to use, most motorists may be surprised to learn that these popular new vehicle features may actually increase mental distraction, according to new research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Using instrumented test vehicles designed to measure reaction times, Dr. David Strayer and researchers from the University of Utah evaluated and ranked common voice-activated interactions based on the level of cognitive distraction generated. The team used a five-category rating system, which they created in 2013, similar to that used for hurricanes.

● The accuracy of voice recognition software significantly influences the rate of distraction. Systems with low accuracy and reliability generated a high level (category 3) of distraction.

● Composing text messages and emails using in-vehicle technologies (category 3) was more distracting than using these systems to listen to messages (category 2).

● The quality of the systems’ voice had no impact on distraction levels – listening to a natural or synthetic voice both rated as a category 2 level of distraction.

The study also separately assessed Apple’s Siri (version iOS 7) using same metrics to measure tasks including using social media, sending texts and updating calendars. The research uncovered that hands- and eyesfree use of Apple’s Siri generated a relatively high category 4 level of mental distraction.

To put all of this year’s findings in context, last year’s research revealed that listening to the radio rated as a category 1 distraction; talking on a hand-held or hands-free cell phone resulted in a category 2 distraction; and using an error-free speech-to-text system to listen to and compose emails or texts was a category 3 distraction.

This phase of the research highlights the variability in demands across all the systems tested. AAA is calling for developers to address key contributing factors to mental distraction including complexity, accuracy and time on task with the goal of making systems that are no more demanding than listening to the radio or an audiobook. AAA also plans to use the findings to continue a dialogue with policy makers, safety advocates and manufacturers.

“While most people agree that using your phone for texting is dangerous, this new research exposes the elephant in the room that talking whether on your phone
or to a voice-activated device is very dangerous,” said Steve Phillips, Traffic Safety Manager for AAA Carolinas. “AAA believes it is possible to make safer systems in the future as long as the manufacturers take this research seriously.”

View the full report, “Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Vehicle II: Assessing In-Vehicle Voice-based Interactive Technologies,” and other materials on distracted driving, at
– Tiffany Wright, Public Relations Manager

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