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AAA: Hands-free calling is still distracted driving

SEBRING - By 2018, you'll be able to say, "windshield wipers," and your smart car will turn them on. Sing out, "Mariah Carey," and although the radio may roll its eyes, it will play "Without You." Order "Text Mom," and your car will take dictation. Don't do it, warns AAA. Hands-free technology will make it easier to phone, chat and Facebook while driving, but it won't be safe. A new AAA study shows mental distractions are still dangerous, even when drivers keep their eyes on the road. "That's probably true," said Lt. Bruce Crum of Sebring Police Department. "If you're distracted, you're distracted."
Witnesses may testify and drivers may admit what they were doing at the time of an accident. Otherwise, it's hard to prove, Crum said. But the greater the concentration required to perform a task, the greater the likelihood that a driver will develop inattention blindness. They may do what they have told police after accidents: they looked, but they did not see. In the University of Utah study, cameras were mounted inside a car to track the driver's eye and head movement. A electroencephalographic skull cap charted drivers' brain activity to the mental workload. A Detection-Response-Task recorded driver reaction times to red and green light triggers. Then, cognitive distraction expert Dr. David Strayer and his research team assessed brainwaves, eye movement, and other metrics as drivers listened to an audio book, talked on the phone and responded to voice-activated emails while behind the wheel. Their findings: Listening to the radio ranked as a category 1 distraction - a minimal risk. Talking on a handheld or hands-free cell-phone resulted in a 2 - moderate risk. Listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated emails raised mental workload and distraction levels to 3 - extensive risk. "There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies," said AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet. "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." Drivers told the AAA that phones and other devices are safe to use behind the wheel if they are hands-free, spokeswoman Yolanda Cade said. Voice commands require more concentration than simply speaking to another person, said psychology professor Strayer, lead author of the study. Listening to synthetic computer voices can be harder than understanding human voices. Talking to a computer requires far greater precision than talking to a person. Otherwise, "Call home" may get Home Depot. A simple, quick voice command to turn on windshield wipers isn't very distracting, he said. But concentrating on creating a text 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. "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." With a predicted five-fold increase in infotainment systems in new vehicles by 2018, AAA officials briefed automakers, safety advocates and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the study's findings. AAA wants to limit in-vehicle, voice-driven technologies to core driving tasks. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers issued a skeptical statement: "We are extremely concerned that it could send a misleading message, since it suggests that hand-held and hands-free devices are equally risky." AAM said the AAA study focuses only on the mental distraction posed by using a device and ignores the visual and manual aspects of hand-held versus hands-free systems that are integrated into cars. 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 of drivers' real world driving experiences found hand-held phone use was less safe than hands-free. View the full Cognitive Distraction in the Vehicle report, the Research Compendium on Cognitive Distraction or the Distracted Driving Fact Sheet at NewsRoom.AAA.com. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828