Hands-free technologies might make it easier for motorists to text, talk on the phone or even use Facebook while they drive, but new findings from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety show dangerous mental distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.
According to the new research, as mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, and drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues - potentially resulting in drivers not seeing items right in front of them, including stop signs and pedestrians.
With a predicted five-fold increase in infotainment systems in new vehicles by 2018, AAA is calling for action. “There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies,” said AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet. “It’s time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free.”
Dr. David Strayer, a cognitive distraction expert, and his research team at the University of Utah measured brainwaves, eye movement and other metrics to assess what happens to drivers’ mental workload when they attempt to do multiple things at once. The research included:
- Cameras mounted inside an instrumented car to track eye and head movement of drivers.
- A Detection-Response-Task device (DRT) was used to record driver reaction time in response to triggers of red and green lights added to field of vision.
- A special electroencephalographic (EEG)-configured skull cap was used to chart participants’ brain activity so researchers could determine mental workload.
While behind the wheel, drivers engaged in common tasks, from listening to an audio book or talking on the phone to listening and responding to voice-activated emails. Then researchers used the results to rate the levels of mental distraction that drivers experienced while performing each of the tasks. Similar to the Saffir-Simpson scale used for hurricanes, the levels of mental distraction are represented on a scale:
- Tasks such as listening to the radio ranked as a category “1” level of distraction or a minimal risk.
- Talking on a cellphone, both handheld and hands-free, resulted in a “2” or a moderate risk.
- Listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features increased mental workload and distraction levels of the drivers to a “3” rating, or one of extensive risk.
“These findings reinforce previous research that hands-free is not risk-free,” said AAA Foundation President and CEO Peter Kissinger. “Increased mental workload and cognitive distractions can lead to a type of tunnel vision or inattention blindness where motorists don’t see potential hazards right in front of them.”
Based on this research, AAA urges automotive and electronics industries to:
- Limit use of voice-activated technology to core driving-related activities such as climate control, windshield wipers and cruise control.
- Disable certain functionalities of voice-to-text technologies, such as using social media or interacting with email and text messages, so they are inoperable while the vehicle is in motion.
- Educate vehicle owners and mobile device users about the responsible use and safety risks for in-vehicle technologies.