New study confirms that hands-free is not risk-free
Driver distraction is not a recent phenomenon. It's been around since 1903 when an inventor named Mary Anderson created the windshield wiper. Critics feared the rhythmic motion would lull drivers into a trance but by 1913, windshield wipers were standard equipment on most cars.
Ten years ago, smart phones were rare; today about 234 million Americans use mobile devices. Now a brave, new world of integrated voice-driven communications is transforming your vehicle into a rolling portal for voice, data and social media. The challenge facing motorists, regulators and automakers, is thinking more intelligently about their benefits and risks.
Educating motorists about responsible use will be crucial. Hands-free technologies have been shown to cause dangerous levels of cognitive distraction — even when drivers keep both hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.
A new study commissioned by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that driver reaction time slows as the mental workload and distractions increase. Brain function is compromised and less time is spent scanning the road ahead. As a result, visual cues are missed and drivers may not see objects directly in front of them.
His findings support a growing body of evidence that hands-free is not risk free. Increased mental workload and cognitive distractions can lead to a type of tunnel vision or "inattention blindness" where motorists don't see potential hazards directly in their path.
Based on this research, which constitutes the most in-depth analysis to date of mental distractions behind the wheel, AAA wants to limit the use of voice-activated technology to core driving-related tasks until their effects are more clearly understood.
In April, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), released distraction guidelines encouraging automobile manufacturers to limit the distraction risk connected to integrated, hands-free and voice-driven communications systems.
The guidelines establish specific criteria for devices requiring drivers to take their hands off the wheel or eyes off the road. Among their recommendations are limiting the time a driver must take his or her eyes off the road to perform any task to two seconds at a time and twelve seconds total. Functions like text messaging and Internet browsing would be disabled unless the vehicle is stopped and in park.
These guidelines are strictly voluntary, but carmakers almost always comply with them because they tend to signal the government's intentions for future rule making.
AAA wants lawmakers and industry to strike the right balance between high-tech innovation and public safety. Without a sophisticated understanding of seemingly helpful technological advances, we may find ourselves facing significant public safety issues down the road.