A subject driving in the AAA study.
Using voice recognition software in a car can be just as distracting as talking on a cellphone while driving, according to a new study from AAA.
The study ranked mental distractions from one to five. Listening to the radio was ranked low, at level one, and talking on a cellphone (whether handheld or hands-free) was a level two.
But sending a text message or email, even when done via voice recognition, was ranked level three, "high danger."
That flies in the face of the common perception that voice recognition technology is safer because the driver can use it while holding the wheel and looking at the road. Instead, the study showed that the mental workload from performing complicated tasks slows reaction times, whatever the driver is doing with his or her hands.
Voice recognition is an increasingly common feature in cars. It's already hard to find a new luxury vehicle that does not have the technology, and AAA predicts a five-fold jump in infotainment systems in new cars in the next five years. The result, President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet says, is "a looming public safety crisis."
It likely won't be easy to persuade automakers to stop developing the technology, which offers drivers a seemingly safe way to stay in touch on the road.
"People want to be connected in their car just as they are in their home or wherever they may be," Gloria Bergquist, vice president for public affairs at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told The New York Times. Automakers won't want to give up on a feature their customers want, especially if it is offered by their competitors.
Released on Wednesday, the study was led by cognitive distraction expert Dr. David Strayer and his team at the University of Utah. Subjects wore an electroencephalographic (EEG)-configured skull cap while driving and performing various tasks. A Detection-Response-Task device recorded driver reaction time, and cameras in the car tracked the subjects' head and eye movement.
AAA's Darbelnet recommended automakers limit the technology to "core driving tasks."
“It’s time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars," he said, "particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free.”
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