Some Hands-Free Technology Raises Your Risk
Business + Economy

Some Hands-Free Technology Raises Your Risk


Nearly 7,000 people were killed by distracted drivers in 2011 and 2012. In 2012 alone, 421,000 people were injured because a driver wasn’t paying attention to her number-one job: the road. The solution was to come up with technology that would solve the problem of texting, talking or looking at email.

Voice-based technologies were supposed to decrease the distractions associated with manipulating handheld, high-tech devices while driving, not increase them; but a new study by AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety concludes that's exactly what's happening.

Related: Google Sets Roadblocks to Stop Distracted Drivers

University of Utah professor David L. Strayer and four of his colleagues conducted the research. They developed a driver-distraction ranking system - or workload rating - of 1.0 to 5.0, with 5.0 being the highest rate of distraction. From there they used equipment like heart-rate monitors and instrumented test vehicles to measure driver reaction times in typical voice-activated interactions. As benchmarks to measure these voice-activated interactions against, they determined that driving completely undistracted generated a rating of 1.0, listening to the radio a 1.21, and listening to a book on tape a 1.75.

For the higher tech part of the driver testing, Strayer and his team found that voice recognition software with poor reliability and accuracy generated a category 3.0-driver distraction rating, worse than talking on a handheld cellphone (a 2.45). Composing emails and text messages using voice commands was equally distracting, though listening to emails and texts brought the rating down to a more manageable category 2.0. This was a bit of good news for tech-connected drivers, as simply having a passenger in the car generates a driver-distraction rating of 2.33.

The best in-car voice-based system was Toyota's Entune, which at 1.7 had the lowest driver-distraction rating. Chrysler Uconnect generated a 2.7, Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch a 3.0, and Mercedes COMAND a 3.1. Chevrolet's MyLink generated an unfavorable 3.7 on the driver distraction scale. But it was IOS version 7 Siri, Apple's voice-activated personal assistant, that generated one of the highest driver distraction ratings of all: category 4.0.

Related: The Technology That Could End Car Crashes

“It is clear that not all voice systems are created equal, and today’s imperfect systems can lead to driver distraction,” says AAA CEO Bob Darbelnet. “[We're] confident that it will be possible to make safer systems in the future.” AAA is asking manufacturers to design the next generation of hands-free technologies to be "no more demanding than listening to the radio or an audiobook."

The general finding of this study - that voice-activated systems need to be reliable and accurate to be safe while driving - is obvious but helpful nonetheless. It's a good reminder to both the makers and users of voice-command programs that there's still a long way to go before these devices - devices the world's population increasingly finds it can't ever be without - can safely be used while behind the wheel.

Decades ago, fighter pilots got "heads-up-displays" - technology that allowed them to fly and fight with their airplanes while keeping their heads outside the cockpit - to better help them kill the enemy without getting themselves killed. That need for reliable, usable human-technological interface has become a much more down to earth and humane. Now it's everyday motorists who desperately need tech that lets them stay connected while keeping their eyes squarely on the road, while not killing themselves and others in the process.

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