The Edmond Sun

June 19, 2013

AAA: Hands-free texting more distracting than talking

Mark Schlachtenhaufen
The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — If you own a newer car or smartphone you are likely aware that speech-to-text technology exists.

The 2013 Ford Focus ST has technology that will read incoming texts from a connected phone and translate commonly used abbreviations. You also can respond with a set of up to 15 preset outgoing messages.

These options may get your cell phone out of your hand while driving, but according to a new study, they are more distracting than old-fashioned texting while driving.

A study commissioned by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that voice-activated in-car technologies can be even more dangerous than hands-free or handheld devices.

“Mental distractions are being built into cars,” said Edmond resident Chuck Mai, spokesman for AAA Oklahoma. “As a leader in driver safety, AAA believes this is creating a looming public safety crisis.”

The study involved drivers ranging from 18-36 engaged in six common tasks from talking on the phone to responding to voice-activated email. Their brainwaves, eye movement, reaction time and other metrics were evaluated by researchers from the University of Utah.

The information was used to rate levels of mental distraction:

• Category 1 includes tasks with minimal risk, such as listening to the radio;

• Category 2 includes tasks with moderate risk. This includes talking on a cell-phone, either handheld or hands-free; and

• Category 3 includes tasks with extensive risk. This includes listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features.

Garry Thomas, director of the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office, said any type of distraction when you’re behind the wheel can be deadly, as this study shows.

“We all think we can multi-task safely because we attempt it frequently in our jobs and at home, but driving is not an activity that can be combined with other tasks,” Thomas said. “Driving requires full cognitive, visual and manual skills.”

Thomas said his organization urges all drivers to turn off their cell phones and other electronic devices while driving.

“No text or call is worth risking your life and others’ lives,” Thomas said. “If you must make a call, we recommend pulling off the road and stopping in a safe spot, out of traffic.”

In Edmond, cell phone use is handled as a failure to devote full-time attention to driving offense.

AAA will continue legislative efforts in 2014, Mai said. During the most recent session, no texting-related bills were passed, he said.

AAA’s study comes on the heels of a similar study sponsored by the Southwest Region University Transportation Center and conducted by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. It was the first study to compare voice-to-text and manual texting on a handheld device in an actual driving environment. The results were released earlier this year.

It compared the performance of 43 research participants who navigated a closed course without any use of cell phones, once using voice-to-text apps for iPhone and Android and once texting manually.

Researchers measured the time it took each driver to complete the tasks, and also noted how long it took for the drivers to respond to a light that came on at random intervals during the exercises. They found:

• In each case, drivers took about twice as long to react as they did when they weren’t texting. With slower reaction times, drivers are less able to take action in response to sudden roadway hazards, such as a swerving vehicle or a pedestrian in the street.

• The amount of time that drivers spent looking at the roadway ahead was significantly less when they were texting, no matter which texting method was used.

• For most tasks, manual texting required slightly less time than the voice-to-text method, but driver performance was roughly the same with both.

Christine Yager, a TTI associate transportation researcher who managed the study, said the findings offer new insight, but only a part of the knowledge that’s needed to improve roadway safety. | 341-2121, ext. 108