Multiple Studies Call Into Question Safety Of Voice Activated Electronics While Driving

It's not uncommon to pull up next to a car that's been driving erratically only to find that the driver is distracted with a smartphone. Hey, it's a sign of the times we live in, and while banning the use of handheld electronics while driving is one solution, hands-free operation is emerging as a compromise. Unfortunately, studies are finding that talking to your car may not be a safer alternative.

In fact, there are at least two recent studies that suggest the problem of distracted driving is even worse when using voice-activated smartphones and dashboard infotainment systems, the Associated Press reports. While such systems allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road while making calls and sending text messages, frequent errors ultimately require more concentration and attention from the driver instead of less.

So say the findings of studies released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the University of Utah. One of them focused on infotainment systems found on automobiles produced by Chevrolet, Chrysler, Ford, Hyundai, and Mercedes, while the other examined the effectiveness of Apple's Siri assistant.

Chevrolet MyLink
Image Source: Flickr (DrivingtheNortheast)

Drivers were graded on a distraction scale of 1 to 5, where a score of 1 represented no distraction at all, and a score of 5 being comparable to figuring out complex math problems and word memorization while driving. Can you guess which was the worst offender?

If you guessed Siri, pat yourself on the back. On two separate occasions, drivers using Siri in a driving simulator rear-ended another car, leading to a score of 4.14. When made aware of the results, Apple tried to explain it away by saying that the researchers didn't use the company's CarPlay or Siri Eyes Free. According to David Strayer, the psychology professor who oversaw both studies, researchers contacted Apple prior to the study. In addition, the version they used was modified so that it would be almost identical to the iOS 8 release.

As for the infotainment systems, Chevy's MyLink received the worst score at 3.7, though it wasn't the only offender. Systems implemented in Mercedes, Ford, and Chrysler were also found to be more distracting to drivers than talking on a handheld phone.

Part of the problem is that these systems aren't regulated. Deborah Hersman, president of the National Safety Council and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, likened the situation to the wild west "where the most critical safety feature in the vehicle -- the driver -- is being treated like a guinea pig in human trials with new technologies."