Federal regulators blame distracted driving for nearly one in 10 of the nation’s highway fatalities, and much of the focus is on motorists who text while driving. But a new survey warns that even when drivers use voice-controlled infotainment systems and keep both hands on the wheel, they can be dangerously distracted.
Even at 25 miles per hour, using a voice command to do something as simple as make a phone call can shift a driver’s attention away from the road for as long as 27 seconds. That’s the equivalent of driving the length of three football fields, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
“The lasting effects of mental distraction pose a hidden and pervasive danger that would likely come as a surprise to most drivers,” said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “The results indicate that motorists could miss stop signs, pedestrians and other vehicles while the mind is readjusting to the task of driving.”
The degree to which drivers can be distracted varies widely depending on the infotainment systems they’re working with, according to two new studies done for the AAA by the University of Utah. But even the best systems can impair a driver’s reactions for at least 15 seconds.
The studies found that some of the least distracting systems were found in the Buick LaCrosse, Toyota 4Runner and Chevrolet Equinox. But even within the same brand there were big gaps. Chevrolet’s voice-control system in the Malibu sedan didn’t score nearly as well. Other weak systems included those in the Ford Taurus, Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler 200 and Volkswagen Passat.
Mazda had one of the most distracting voice-control systems, notably in the Mazda6 sedan. Researchers noted that it required multiple steps to perform even simple tasks, such as changing a radio station.
The second study looked at voice-controlled smartphone systems and found that the Google Now system on Android phones was more effective than Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana – in large part because it was more intuitive to use.
The two studies contradict claims made by various automakers that said their voice-control systems are the least distracting way for drivers to do things like making calls or even change stations. Ford, for example, has said that it sets a goal of taking a driver’s attention off the road for no more than three seconds to operate its infotainment systems.
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“The massive increase in voice-activated technologies in cars and phones represents a growing safety problem for drivers,” said AAA CEO Marshall Doney. “We are concerned that these new systems may invite driver distraction, even as overwhelming scientific evidence concludes that hands-free is not risk free.”
The new AAA studies did not compare the impact of using a voice-controlled system with a more traditional, touch-based infotainment system, something the organization says it wants to look at in the future.
The new AAA studies could have an impact on future regulations, officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration having raised their own concerns about the use of infotainment technology.
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Meanwhile, a separate study by Kelley Blue Book found that 97% of U.S. consumers think distracted drivers are the top safety concern on the road today, even more so than those impaired by drugs or alcohol.
Eight out of 10 of those surveyed said they believe Millennials make up the age group most likely to text while driving.
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“Mobile phone technology offers enhanced convenience and connectivity for consumers, but it is increasingly a source of distraction on the road,” said Arthur Henry, senior manager of Strategic Insights for Kelley Blue Book. “In fact, consumers believe drivers who use cell phones are a more significant safety concern than drunk drivers, road rage or weather conditions.”