Vision Techniques

Driven to distraction: Is hands-free calling safe?

In a few years, it’s likely you will be able to say a single word and your smart car will be able to turn on its windscreen wipers, the radio or your ignition.

Already, in many cars, you can use hands-free technology for phone and chat and, in the future, social media – but it won’t be safe, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA), a US not-for-profit motor club organisation.

A new study from the AAA found that mental distractions are dangerous even when drivers are keeping their eyes on the road.

With the extra concentration required to perform a different task, it’s more likely that drivers will be blinded to potential dangers.

The study involved cameras being put inside a car to track the driver’s eye and head movement. An electricity-recording skullcap mapped the brain activity of the metal workload, while a response-task recorder tracked driver reaction times.

University of Utah researcher Dr David Strayer and his team evaluated these factors while subjects listened to audiobooks, had phone conversations and responded their voice-activated emails while driving.

They found that listening to the radio was a minimal risk, talking on a hands-free mobile phone was a moderate risk and listening and responding to voice-activated emails was a high risk activity.

Dr Stayer said that a simple, quick voice command to turn on windshield wipers isn’t that distracting. But concentrating on creating a message takes more mental effort and time.

“The more complex and the longer those interactions are, the more likely you are going to have impairments when you’re driving,” Strayer said.

He said that talking to a computer requires far greater precision than talking to a person.

AAA CEO Robert L. Darbelnet said: “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.”

“These findings reinforce previous research that hands-free is not risk-free,” said AAA Foundation President and CEO Peter Kissinger.

“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.”

Other studies have also compared hand-held and hands-free phone use, finding they are equally risky or nearly so.

At Vision Techniques, we think it’s wise to have safety provisions to minimise your risk. That’s why we often emphasise the importance of investing in an automatic braking system, warning system or some other from of vehicle safety technology, especially as a fleet manager.