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Dashboard technology more distracting than cellphones, AAA study finds

Joel Cooper, left, helps hook up a skull cap to a driver in a research vehicle during a demonstration supporting the AAA study on distracted driving Tuesday in Landover, Md. 

Associated Press

Joel Cooper, left, helps hook up a skull cap to a driver in a research vehicle during a demonstration supporting the AAA study on distracted driving Tuesday in Landover, Md. 

WASHINGTON — Dashboard technology that lets drivers text and email with voice commands — marketed as a safer alternative — is more distracting than simply talking on a cellphone, a new AAA study has found.

Automakers have been trying to excite car buyers with dashboard systems that let drivers use voice commands to do things such as turn on windshield wipers, post Facebook messages or order food. The pitch has been that hands-free devices are safer because they enable drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.

But talking on a hands-free phone isn't significantly safer for drivers than talking on a hand-held phone, and using hands-free devices that translate speech into text is the most distracting of all, researchers reported in a study released Wednesday. Speech-to-text systems that enable drivers to send, scroll through or delete email and text messages required greater concentration by drivers than other potentially distracting activities examined in the study, such as talking on the phone, talking to a passenger, listening to an audiobook or listening to the radio.

The greater the concentration required to perform a task, the more likely a driver is to develop what researchers call "tunnel vision" or "inattention blindness." Drivers will stop scanning the roadway or ignore their side and rearview mirrors. Instead, they'll look straight ahead but fail to see what's in front of them, such as red lights and pedestrians.

"People aren't seeing what they need to see to drive. That's the scariest part to me," said Peter Kissinger, president and chief executive officer of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the group's safety research arm. "Police accident investigative reports are filled with comments like 'looked, but did not see.' That's what drivers tell them. We used to think they were lying, but now we know that's actually true."

There are about 9 million cars and trucks on the road with infotainment systems, and that will jump to about 62 million vehicles by 2018, AAA spokeswoman Yolanda Cade said, citing automotive industry research. At the same time, drivers tell AAA they believe phones and other devices are safe to use behind the wheel if they are hands-free, she said.

"We believe there is a public safety crisis looming," Cade said. "We hope this study will change some widely held misconceptions by motorists."

AAA officials who briefed automakers, safety advocates and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the study's findings said they want to limit in-vehicle, voice-driven technologies to "core driving tasks."

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers was skeptical.

"We are extremely concerned that it could send a misleading message, since it suggests that hand-held and hands-free devices are equally risky," the association said in a statement.

Other studies have also compared hand-held and hands-free phone use, finding they are equally risky or nearly so. But a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found that hand-held phone use was less safe than hands-free.

University of Utah researchers who conducted the study for AAA measured the brainwaves, eye movement, driving performance and other indicators of 32 university students as they drove and performed a variety of secondary tasks, ranging from listening to music to sending emails. Cameras were mounted inside the car to track the drivers' eye and head movements. A device that drivers pressed was used to record their reaction time to red and green lights introduced into their field of vision. Drivers were fitted with a special skull cap to record their brain activity.

The students were tested while not driving, while driving in a simulator and while driving a car on a 3-mile loop through a suburban Salt Lake City neighborhood with stop signs and stoplights. A researcher with a backup braking system accompanied the students in the test car.

Dashboard technology more distracting than cellphones, AAA study finds 06/12/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 11:38pm]
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