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Why hands-free tech doesn’t necessarily make driving safer

October 7, 2014 at 6:30 PM EDT
In a device-heavy world, hands-free technology is supposed to make tasks like driving safer. But a new report found that talking, texting and adjusting music might be even more distracting if you’re not using your hands. Gwen Ifill learns more from Jake Nelson, director of Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research at AAA.

GWEN IFILL: In the age of the mobile phones and smart devices, today’s drivers are increasingly tempted to take their hands off the wheel and their eyes off the road.

Many of us take comfort in newer hands-free technology that allows us to stay connected, but with fewer hand and eye movements. But a new study out today finds talking, texting and changing the radio dial even without using your hands may not necessarily make driving any safer.

Such distractions, in fact, may be make the process of getting from here to there more dangerous.

The study was conducted by AAA and the University of Utah.

Jake Nelson is the director of traffic safety advocacy and research for AAA, and he joins me now.

So, how distracted are we, Jake Nelson?

JAKE NELSON, Director of Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research, AAA: It’s a lot worse than we thought.


JAKE NELSON: It’s really important to remember that the auto industry has done a great job at helping to mitigate manual and visual forms of distracted driving by allowing motorists to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.

Our concern at AAA is that there is the third leg of the stool here, which is the mental or cognitive piece, that also needs to be addressed.

GWEN IFILL: And so technology may be hurting more than it’s helping?

JAKE NELSON: Well, certainly, from a mental standpoint, using voice commands to do things like tune the radio and to send and receive text messages and the latter are actually more distracting than — from a mental standpoint than using your handheld device.


Now, first, I’m going to make an admission here. My very first car, my very first accident was because I was switching the radio dial. Why is that not more distracting than everything we’re talking about now?

JAKE NELSON: Well, there are different forms of distracted driving, as I mentioned.

There’s the manual, which is the example that you just gave. There is also the visual, looking away from the roadway. But if your mind isn’t focused on that important task of driving, our performance as drivers decreases.

GWEN IFILL: So rank the kind of tasks. Some of the new cars, you can write an e-mail while you’re driving. You can obviously talk on the phone. You can do all kinds of things. You can call people up. Is that — which of those are more dangerous than the other?

JAKE NELSON: We looked at a variety of tasks that motorists engage in while driving, from listening to an audiobook and the radio, driving just by itself, talking to a passenger, talking on a cell phone handheld or hands-free, and interacting with these voice-recognition systems to send and receive text messages.

And we found that just driving in and of itself has a significant amount of workload associated with it, which makes sense. We’re doing a lot of different things at one time. When you start to listen to the radio and an audiobook, it’s not much more distracting than just driving.


JAKE NELSON: Talk about using a cell phone, handheld or hands-free, that’s a category two on our scale of one to five.


JAKE NELSON: Interacting with these voice-detect systems, category three.

GWEN IFILL: So it matters what layer of technology we’re talking about.

So if I’m trying the find an address and my technology device built into my car, it gives me the wrong answer to the question I have asked, I’m even more distracted.

JAKE NELSON: Absolutely.

In our research, we found some good news and some bad news, all right? The good news is that some automakers are getting it right. Toyota, for example, their Entune system, interacting with that isn’t really much more distracting, at least from a mental standpoint, than listening to an audiobook.

And there’s a reason for that. So, they have blocked certain functionality in their system, like composing a text message or an e-mail, which, in and of itself, reduces the demands on a driver by about half.

GWEN IFILL: While you’re driving, while you’re sitting still.

JAKE NELSON: While you’re driving, correct.

GWEN IFILL: So — but here’s the question for me, which is, what can you do about that? Should AAA be recommending to car companies or to motorists that we just shouldn’t be doing any of that?

JAKE NELSON: Well, I think we have a shared responsibility here.

I think that industry has a responsibility to do whatever they can to make sure that the products that they develop are as safe as possible to use. And we have identified through our research several ways that industry can pursue that. And then there’s obviously a responsibility that all of us have.

Just because technology enables us to do things behind the wheel doesn’t mean that we should do it. So hang up the phone. Drive. Focus on that very important task.

GWEN IFILL: Just because you can put on your mascara while driving doesn’t mean you should do it.

JAKE NELSON: Right. Exactly.

GWEN IFILL: But is there a connection that’s been made or that you can establish between these kinds of activities and actual accidents?

JAKE NELSON: That’s a really good question.

So there’s been a lot of research that’s been done looking at different forms of distracted driving. The example that I would give you would be talking on a cell phone. Regardless of whether it’s handheld or hands-free, previous research has shown that roughly quadruples your risk of causing a traffic crash.

On our scale of mental distraction, that came in at a category level two. When we talk about interacting with these voice-detect systems, even a perfect system in our research, one that never made a mistake in translation or understanding a voice command, was a category three.

GWEN IFILL: But you’re talking extrapolation. I’m wondering whether there is actually evidence, actual evidence that there were 500 accidents last year, and the drivers admitted later that they were trying to talk to Siri.

JAKE NELSON: Yes, so this relationship between mental distraction and actual crashes isn’t well-understood.

No one has researched it to date, including AAA. Our study wasn’t designed to look at crash risk. But we have a study we are going to initiate next year that will help us to understand this relationship a little bit better.

GWEN IFILL: So, as a result, you can’t really advise automakers or consumers to not do these things at all.

JAKE NELSON: Not exactly correct, because we know in the research that we have done, which looked at the effect of mental workload or mental distraction on driving performance, that being overloaded as a driver by the use of technologies or doing other things while driving impairs your performance behind the wheel.

So it increases your reaction time. People who are mentally distracted tend to scan the roadway less to look for hazards. And worse outcome possible is just failure to identify hazards in the roadway altogether. It’s a phenomenon called inattention blindness.

GWEN IFILL: So you don’t even see the squirrel in front of you.

JAKE NELSON: You don’t even — you’re looking straight ahead and you don’t even see it.

GWEN IFILL: I think I have had that happen.


GWEN IFILL: So, I’m going to go now plug in my GPS before I drive off.

JAKE NELSON: There you go.

Jake Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety advocacy and research, thank you very much.

JAKE NELSON: Thank you.