AAA: Hands-free technology not safer for drivers

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WASHINGTON -- Dashboard technology that lets drivers text and email with voice commands -- marketed as a safer alternative to equivalent hand-held devices -- actually is more distracting than simply talking on a cellphone, a new AAA study found.

Automakers have been trying to excite new-car buyers with dashboard infotainment systems that let drivers use voice commands for such tasks as turning on windshield wipers, posting Facebook messages or ordering pizza. The pitch has been that hands-free devices are safer because they let drivers keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

But talking on a hands-free phone isn't significantly safer for drivers than talking on a hand-held phone, and using hands-free devices that translate speech into text is the most distracting of all, University of Utah researchers reported in the auto association study released yesterday.

Speech-to-text systems that enable drivers to send, scroll through, or delete email and text messages required greater concentration by drivers than other potentially distracting activities examined in the study, such as talking on the phone, talking to a passenger, listening to a book on tape or listening to the radio.

The greater the concentration required to perform a task, the more likely a driver is to develop what researchers call "tunnel vision" or "inattention blindness."

Drivers stop scanning the roadway or ignore the side and rearview mirrors. Instead, they look straight ahead, but fail to see what's in front of them, like red lights and pedestrians.

"People aren't seeing what they need to see to drive. That's the scariest part to me," said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the group's safety research arm. "Police accident investigative reports are filled with comments like the 'looked, but did not see.' That's what drivers tell them. We used to think they were lying, but now we know that's actually true."

There are about 9 million cars and trucks on the road with infotainment systems, and that will jump to about 62 million vehicles by 2018, AAA spokeswoman Yolanda Cade said, citing industry research.

The National Safety Council, responding to the study, called on industry and policymakers "to reconsider the inclusion of communications and entertainment technology built into vehicles which allow, or even encourage, the driver to engage in these activities at the expense of focusing on driving."

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers challenged the findings. "We are extremely concerned that it could send a misleading message, since it suggests that hand-held and hands-free devices are equally risky," the group said in a statement.

Other studies have also compared hand-held and hands-free phone use, finding they are equally risky or nearly so. But a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found hand-held phone use was less safe than hands-free.

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