Thursday, June 13, 2013

New study reveals the mistaken perception that hands-free in-car tech is safe

In what probably shouldn't be a surprise -- but most likely is -- a study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows that hands-free or not, all the additional technology being put into automobiles increases the risk of accident, not by diverting drivers' eyes from the road, but by distracting them from what they should be doing: paying attention to driving.

The study was conducted for AAA by David L. Strayer, Joel M. Cooper, Jonna Turrill, James Coleman, Nate Medeiros-Ward, and Francesco Biondi of the University of Utah.

To come to their conclusions, researchers measured the brainwaves and eye movements of drivers as they performed various tasks, such as listening to the radio, and talking on a cell phone, while behind the wheel. According to the researchers, listening to the radio was a "minimal" distraction, while talking on a cell phone, either handheld and hands-free, posed a "moderate" risk.

On the other hand, activities such as some of the newer functionality being added to cars, e.g. sending and receiving emails using voice-activated technology, created an "extensive" safety risk, the researchers found.

AAA Foundation President and CEO Peter Kissinger said, in a statement:
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.
As a result of its study, AAA is urging automakers to limit their use of voice-activated technologies to driving-related activities such as controlling the environment, activating / deactivating windshield wipers, and the like.

Projections are that by 2018, there will be a projected five-fold increase in automotive infotainment systems.

With a predicted fivefold increase in infotainment systems in new vehicles by 2018, AAA is calling for action as a result of its research. AAA CEO Robert Darbelnet said, in a statement:
There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies. 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.
It is indeed a misperception, but one fostered by industry. After all, cell phone manufacturers want customers to continue to use phones will driving. Texting s a cash cow for wireless carriers, so we wouldn't want to totally disable texting while driving -- or, ahem, riding as a passenger -- would we?

In 2012, the DOT and NHTSA released a set of non-binding guidelines for auto manufacturers, which it calls the "first phase of the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) Driver Distraction Guidelines." These guidelines recommend that OEMs curb additions that further add to distracted driving.

The recommendations, published in the Federal Register would block in-vehicle communications by a driver, including texting, dialing, Internet browsing, and even entering a GPS address by hand. It wouldn't block handheld personal devices --- yet.

The study was, ironically released in the same week as Apple's WWDC 2013 conference.   In its keynote, Apple announced that iOS in the car would be reaching vehicles in 2014.  The company then displayed a huge number of manufacturer logos.

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