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Voice-operated devices not safer, study finds

Through relentless media stories and state safety campaigns, drivers in Illinois and across the nation have been made painfully aware of the dangers of distracted driving.

As a result of this media blitz, many drivers have taken steps to minimize distractions while they are behind the wheel by equipping their cellphones speech-to-text apps, which allows them to send text messages without having to touch a screen. Although their desire to avoid car accidents and be safer drivers seems worthy of praise, in reality, according to a recent study, their actions may not make any safety difference.

The study, conducted by the University of Utah, tested the effects of distractions on participants’ brain activity by looking at eye motion, reaction times, and electroencephalography results. Participants were subjected to various distracting activities such as talking with a passenger, listening to the radio and talking on a handheld and hands-free cellphone.

The study found that talking on the phone or with a passenger was moderately distracting. Listening to the radio was also found to be minimally distracting. However, the surprise came when passengers used speech recognition technology to command a device, such as speech-to-text devices. The study found that even when the driver had his or her eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, using such devices caused a high level of cognitive distraction.

The study’s results come at a time when automakers, in an attempt to increase driver safety, have unfortunately moved to voice operated systems in their new models. Safety experts have pushed automakers in the past to disable the voice-operated systems while the car is in motion, but with limited success. They hope that the study’s results will help them show the distracting effect of voice-operated devices.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "AAA study on cell phones in cars: "Hands-free is not risk-free."  Eryn Brown, June 12, 2013

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