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January/February 2016 Issue

New AAA research reveals lingering distractions from hands-free car technology

If you're like most people, you sometimes need a few moments to establish mental focus on your next task after you end a phone call or send a text message, even from a hands-free system. But what if your next task required you to avoid a pedestrian or a vehicle that unexpectedly entered your path as the traffic light where you were waiting turned green? Would you be mentally prepared to properly react?

New scientific answers to these questions will probably surprise you.

In its latest look at in-vehicle mental distractions, a Utah-based research team discovered that test subjects needed up to 27 seconds to fully restore their mental focus on driving after ending a call or texting from voice-controlled system. These lingering distractions, referred to as “residual costs,” were determined by measuring participants’ reaction times to potential hazards while conducting such interactions as they drove on suburban roads.

“These residual costs are notable,” says David Strayer, the University of Utah psychology professor who led the study, sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “At 25 mph, a vehicle would travel up to 988 feet (the approximate length of three football fields) before the residual costs completely dissipate. These findings have implications for people who think it's safe to dial or send a text message at a stoplight, because the distractions from these interactions are likely to persist after the light turns green.”

In prior research, Strayer’s team established a five-point scale to assess distraction levels resulting from activities such as listening to the radio (Category 1) and sending voice-activated texts from an error-free system (Category 3). A set of complicated math-memory problems was used to establish the top end of the scale (Category 5).

The most recent study analyzed distraction levels resulting from the use of voice-controlled information systems available in 10 vehicles and three smartphones. Among the vehicles, the Chevy Equinox had the lowest – or best – distraction rating (2.4), while the Mazda 6 had the highest, or worst, rating (4.6).

Of the smartphone systems, Google Now performed best (3.0), followed by Apple Siri (3.4) and Microsoft Cortana (3.8). Using these three systems to send text messages significantly increased distraction levels. AAA considers distractions at Category 2 or higher to be unsafe, and all these systems exceed that level.

“Developers should aim to reduce mental distractions by designing systems that are no more demanding than listening to the radio or an audiobook (a Category 1 distraction),” says Marshall Doney, AAA National president and CEO. “We advise consumers against using these new technologies while behind the wheel, even at a stop sign or red lights, given the high risk that distraction may last much longer than people realize.”

Based on the performance of 257 participants in three age groups (21–34, 35–53, and 54–70), researchers found that in-vehicle systems placed greater mental demands on older drivers than on younger drivers.

After an initial analysis, participants kept their cars for a week before returning for more testing. Even after familiarizing themselves with the information systems, participants showed only marginal improvement, leading researchers to conclude that such distractions “cannot be practiced away.”


driver testing

Several devices gauged mental distractions among the participants piloting specially equipped cars in the study.

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