AAA Study Shows Hands-Free Tech Still Leads To Dangerous Driver Distractions

We've all seen a distracted motorist veer off into a neighboring lane because he or she was too involved with operating a smartphone to safely navigate an automobile, but would the person be any better off using hands-free technology? Car makers think so, though new research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety suggests that motorists can remain distracted for nearly half a minute after using voice commands.

"The lasting effects of mental distraction pose a hidden and pervasive danger that would likely come as a surprise to most drivers," said Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "The results indicate that motorists could miss stop signs, pedestrians and other vehicles while the mind is readjusting to the task of driving."

Distracted Driving

AAA studied the use of hands-free technologies in ten 2015 model vehicles and three types of smartphones using Google Now, Microsoft Cortana, and Apple Siri. The researchers involved in the study found that motorists exhibited potentially unsafe levels of distraction for as long as 27 seconds after completing a voice-activated task in the worst performing systems. When using the least distracting systems, impairment still lasted more than 15 seconds.

"The massive increase in voice-activated technologies in cars and phones represents a growing safety problem for drivers," said Marshall Doney, AAA's President and CEO. "We are concerned that these new systems may invite driver distraction, even as overwhelming scientific evidence concludes that hands-free is not risk free."

Researchers rated voice-activated systems on a 5 point scale with 1 representing a mild distraction, 2 a moderate distraction, 3 a high distraction, and 4 a very high distraction. The best performing of the bunch was the Chevy Equinox with a cognitive distraction rating of 2.4, while the worst was the Mazda 6 with a 4.6 rating.

AAA Mental Distraction Graph

Looking at digital assistants for smartphones, Google Now earned a 3.0 rating, Siri a 3.4, and Cortana a 3.8. These ratings grew higher when sending voice-activated texts, with Google Now rising to 3.3, Siri to 3.7, and Cortana to 4.1.

Part of the problem is that all of these systems are imperfect. They can misinterpret commands or otherwise not function as desired, which can exacerbate the level of distraction. Doney says developers should focus on reducing mental distractions by designing systems that are as easy as listening to the radio.

AAA isn't the first to call into question the safety of hands-free technologies. A study conducted by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute compared voice-to-text and manual texting in real-world driving environments. The results? Drivers took about twice as long to react to roadway hazards no matter which method of texting they used versus no texting at all.