Driving Safety Linda Gorman

Hands-free technologies make it easier for motorists to text, talk on the phone and update social media sites while they drive, but these features come with big safety risks.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety recently released a new study that provides the most in-depth analysis to date of mental distractions behind the wheel. The study found that voice-activated in-car technologies are more dangerous than hands-free or handheld devices.

In the study, drivers engaged in six common tasks, from talking on the phone to responding to voice-activated emails. Their brainwaves, eye movement, reaction time and other metrics were evaluated by experts from the University of Utah. To measure effects in controlled and real-world settings, drivers were studied on both simulators and instrumented vehicles.

Experts assessed what happens to drivers’ mental workload when they multitask. This information was used to rate levels of mental distraction similar to the Saffir-Simpson scale used to rank hurricanes:

• Category 1 included tasks with minimal risks, such as listening to the radio.

• Category 2 included tasks with moderate risks. This included talking on a cell phone, both handheld and hands-free.

• Category 3 included tasks with extensive risks. This included listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features. 

These findings reinforce AAA’s position that hands-free is not risk-free and underscore the dangers of cognitive distractions.

Mental distractions create tunnel vision where motorists may not see hazards right in front of them — even if their hands are on the wheel and their eyes are on the road. As a leader in driver safety, AAA believes these features are lulling drivers into a false sense of security, thereby, creating a looming public safety crisis.

AAA will use the results of this study to promote dialogue about distracted driving with policy makers. For the past two sessions, AAA supported a bill that proposed a wireless device ban for young drivers during the permit phase as well as the first six months of licensure. The bill was unsuccessful. However, AAA will continue its legislative efforts in 2014. In addition, AAA also will use the findings to engage in dialogue with the automotive and electronics industries. 

In the meantime, AAA hopes the results of this study will serve to elevate the dialogue of distracted driving and alert motorists to the dangers these new technologies pose to all road users.

• Linda Gorman is communications and public affairs director for AAA Arizona. Reach her at (602) 650.2716 or lgorman@arizona.aaa.com.

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