Hands-free systems more dangerous than hand-held devices while driving: Study

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety published the results of a research study this week. That study suggests hands-free technologies in cars, designed to put eyes on the road while driving, aren't as safe as once thought.

Forty-one states have banned the use of hand-held devices while driving, prompting auto companies to continually update and upgrade hands-free systems in their vehicles. Products like Ford's Sync and Toyota's Entune allow users to access phone, text and data by vocal commands.

According to Apple, about 95 percent of cars sold today incorporate a voice-activated music playback system from an iOS device, and in 2014, major car manufacturers including Honda, Mercedes, Ford, Chevy and Jaguar will be introducing iOS features in future cars. That announcement came on Monday during Apple's annual WWDC event in San Francisco.

The illegality of hand-held devices and the prevalence of hands-free systems would suggest that products allowing the driver to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road are safe. That appears to be no longer be the case. AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the University of Utah conducted studies to measure levels of mental distraction to drivers while they used various in-car devices. They used cameras to track eye and head movement, a Detection-Response-Task device to measure reaction time and an electroencephalographic (EEG) skull cap to measure participants' mental workload based on brain activity analysis.

Participants were asked to drive while listening to radio, music or audio-books, talking on a cellphone (hands-free and hand-held) and interacting with in-vehicle voice-activated email features. The study found that radio produced minimal distraction and risk, using a cell phone resulted in moderate risk, and using the voice-activated email features was rated an extensive risk. While vocally interacting with email messages, drivers had a significantly increased mental workload, scanned the road less frequently and missed visual cues like stop signs and pedestrians.

AAA Foundation President and CEO Peter Kissinger says that these results "reinforce previous research that hands-free is not risk-free" and AAA encourages limiting the use of voice-activated technologies to basic functional needs, leaving texts, emails and social networking until the vehicle is safely stopped.

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