Study Says Hands Free Texting Offers No Safety Benefits for Drivers

The problem with trying to send and receive text messages while operating a vehicle is that your eyes are zeroed in on a mobile phone instead of the road where they belong. Voice-to-text apps that offer hands-free texting seem like an obvious solution, but new research suggests that such software offers no real safety advantage over manual texting.

That revelation came courtesy of a study conducted by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) that was sponsored by the Southwest Region University Transportation Center. The study, which is supposedly a first of its kind, examined the performance of 43 research participants driving a vehicle on a close course. Similar research exists in relation to manual versus voice-activated tasks using devices installed in a vehicle, but never before has there been a study that compares voice-to-text and manual texting in an actual driving environment.

Hands Free Sign
Image Source: Flickr (Fort Rucker)

The study consisted of drivers first navigating the course without using a cell phone. They then ran through the course three additional times performing a series of texting exercises: once using Siri for the iPhone, again using Vlingo for Android, and a third time texting manually.

"Driver response times were significantly delayed no matter which texting method was used. In each case, drivers took about twice as long to react as they did when they weren’t texting," TTI said. "With slower reaction times, drivers are less able to take action in response to sudden roadway hazards, such as a swerving vehicle or a pedestrian in the street."

What's more, the study found that the time drivers spent looking at the roadway ahead was also significantly less when texting, regardless of whether it was hands-free or not.

"Understanding the distracted driving issue is an evolving process, and this study is but one step in that process," said Christine Yager, a TTI Associate Transportation Researcher who managed the study. "We believe it’s a useful step, and we’re eager to see what other studies may find."