While as a nation we are making great strides in reducing auto accidents through banning texting and restricting cell phone use while driving, there is still a lot more work to do to make distracted driving-related fatalities a thing of the past.
For instance, it’s common knowledge that cell phones, mp3 players, and other handheld technology is a serious distraction behind the wheel. That’s why many people have switched to Bluetooth-enabled phones, speech-to-text email systems, and other hands-free devices that allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel at all times.
But according to a new study, hands-free devices may not be the promised solution to the problem, but rather the cause of an entirely different kind of distraction.
Sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, researchers at the University of Utah Center for the Prevention of Distracted Driving conducted an in-depth study on hands-free technology, seeking an answer to whether or not these devices really help reduce driver distraction. What they found surprised almost everyone—that drivers who used hands-free devices to make a call were only slightly less distracted than those who used a handheld phone.
In the experiment, drivers were set up with a brain-measuring device that recorded their level of distraction. They then performed a series of tasks, which included listening to music, a book on tape, talking to a passenger, and having a conversation on a handheld cell phone. Next, the driver performed three hands-free tasks—using a hands-free phone, speech-to-text email system, and an auditory version of the Operation Span (OSPAN) task.
From this, the researchers concluded that drivers using a hands-free device were about the same level of distractedness as when talking to a passenger, and those who used speech-to-text systems were 3 times as distracted as a driver listening to the radio.
Unfortunately, public awareness about hands-free devices and their correlation to distracted driving continues to be overshadowed by the general belief that all you need are your hands and eyes to drive safely.
There are three levels of being distracted, according to the government’s official site targeting distracted driving. The first two distractions are visual and manual, which relate to taking your eyes off the road and hands off the wheel. The last type of distraction—and what the AAA study focused on—is cognitive, which applies to instances where a person takes their mind off of driving.
While hands-free devices can help reduce manual and some visual distraction, they still cause a driver’s mind to be elsewhere when it should be focused on safely operating their vehicle.
“This [study] clearly suggests that the adoption of voice-based systems in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety,” concludes Utah researchers.
The best action you can take to prevent a car accident is to consider your own safety and the safety of others first by making sure your eyes, hands, and mind are focused on driving alone.
Leave the daydreaming and emails for another time.