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Study: Even hands-free apps and in-car systems cause distracted driving

Hands-free devices are often seen as safer than handheld devices, but research suggests this technology is still too mentally demanding for drivers.

Many people in Bridgeport understand the dangers of driving while texting or talking on cellphones. State lawmakers have also recognized this threat and banned drivers from using handheld cellphones for any purpose. Although this represents an important step in preventing accidents, it may leave motorists vulnerable to another common form of driver distraction.

The belief that hands-free electronic devices present a safer alternative to handheld devices is fairly widespread. No states comprehensively ban the use of these devices, and hands-free systems are standard features in many new vehicles. Unfortunately, new research suggests that hands-free apps and in-car systems can be just as distracting as handheld devices.

Study reveals poor performance

The University of Utah and AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety recently performed complementary studies on the distraction that hands-free systems cause. According to Fox News, one study tested in-car systems; the other tested the personal assistant app Siri. The study participants drove under supervision, completed a driving simulation and took laboratory tests while using hands-free technology.

During all of these activities, researchers monitored each participant's performance and apparent level of distraction. The researchers found that participants showed significant levels of distraction while using many of the hands-free systems. According to a second Fox News article, researchers reported the following observations and conclusions:

  • Although participants were able to keep their eyes on the task at hand, they were still significantly distracted. They tended to miss important visual cues, from signs to other road users.
  • The level of distraction that researchers observed was related directly to the performance of each voice-based system. Systems that made errors in interpreting voice commands or carrying out tasks were the most distracting.
  • From a safety standpoint, most systems did not offer significant benefits over handheld devices. Researchers even found that some of the systems were as distracting as texting manually.

These findings suggest that current limitations to hands-free technology may be a significant factor in driver distraction. Unfortunately, though, other research suggests that even the most capable hands-free systems may still be too demanding.

Dangers of mental distraction

According to research from the National Safety Council, any cognitively demanding activity can be dangerously distracting to a driver. This is because people can only effectively multitask at simple activities. When people try to simultaneously perform cognitively demanding tasks, their brains actually switch rapidly between the tasks. This can result in impaired performance at both tasks.

This impairment can be deadly when the task in question is driving. Multitasking drivers may be blind to important environmental cues, such as pedestrians and traffic signals. The NSC estimates that drivers using handheld cellphones fail to process half of their immediate environments. Multitasking can also lead to delayed response times. One simulation-based study even indicates that legally intoxicated drivers show better response times than drivers talking on cellphones.

Unfortunately, many people aren't aware of these potential safety issues. Compounding the problem, hands-free systems are largely unregulated, according to Fox News. Drivers may assume that the systems they use have been tested and proven safe when this is not the case. As these systems become more widely available and used, the risk of distraction-related accidents may only rise.

Recourse may be available

The victims of these accidents may be able to seek compensation for their injuries. Even if hands-free systems are not illegal in Connecticut, a driver's choice to use one may still constitute negligence. Anyone who has been hurt because of another driver's carelessness should consider speaking to an attorney about possible legal options.

Keywords: distracted, driving, accident, injury