Study shows cognitive distraction risks with hands-free devices

A recent study shows that voice-activated systems in cars may not be as safe as manufacturers are claiming.

People driving on the streets of Raleigh are familiar with distractive driving. Distraction.gov states that at any given time, electronic devices, including cellphones, are being used by around 600,000 drivers throughout the U.S. Furthermore, studies have shown that drivers who use their devices while driving have an auto accident risk that is three times those of drivers who refrain from this behavior.

Looking at cognitive distraction

As hands-free systems become standard features in new vehicles, the American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety took the task of looking at the mental effect these systems have on drivers. To accomplish this, researchers recruited 38 drivers whose experience behind the wheel averaged around 6.9 years and who were between 18 and 30 years old. The drivers had a clean driving history and all admitted that they often used their cellphone in the car.

The experiments

The researchers then put the participants through a series of three experiments. To gather data, the participants were fitted with special sensors that measured brain activity and cameras to record their actions. The experiments were held behind the wheel of an instrumented vehicle, a driving simulator and in a laboratory. To make sure that participants were not confused in any way, they were allowed to familiarize themselves with the environments before the tests were conducted.

In each experiment, the drivers were asked to engage in different actions separately. These actions included talking on the phone with a handheld device, talking to a passenger, talking with a hands-free phone, listening to an audio book and using a speech-to-text system. To create a rating scale, the participants were asked to first drive without using any devices or talking. They were also asked to solve a difficult set of calculations so that researchers could establish a high rate of mental workload.

The findings

Once the experiments were concluded, the researchers gathered all of the data and then analyzed it. They discovered that the task with the lowest level of cognitive distraction for drivers was listening to the radio. The task with the highest mental workload was using the speech-to-text-system. Speaking with a handheld cellphone and talking with a passenger held the second and third spots, respectively.

The researchers noted the following behaviors from drivers when engaged in tasks that required more brain work:

  • Drivers went into a sort of tunnel vision, keeping their eyes straight ahead instead of scanning the environment around them for potential issues.
  • Drivers' reaction slowed down, increasing the amount of time between when a driver noticed something amiss and hitting the brake.
  • Brain activity in the area used for safe driving decreased
  • Drivers failed to notice cues that signaled a potential collision.

Researchers noted that the systems car manufacturers are promoting, such as voice-activated dialing, searching for a local restaurant by voice command and sending texts or emails, are far from improving road safety. Such systems actually require more of the brain's attention, preventing drivers from putting their full attention where it should be - on the road and drivers around them.

Legal assistance

When people in Raleigh are injured by a distracted driver, they may suffer serious injury that can prevent them from working or enjoying life as they used to. Victims may find it beneficial to meet with an experienced attorney for legal assistance in seeking compensation.