Voice commands can distract drivers even after they're done using them, study finds

Drivers can remain distracted for up to 27 seconds after using voice commands on their phones or in-vehicle infotainment systems, research conducted for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found.

In a study released today, researchers tested voice-activated systems in ten 2015 model year vehicles on 257 drivers and three smartphone systems on 65 drivers. They found that each one increased mental distractions and can have residual effects for seconds after the driver has stopped talking.

Of the vehicles tested, the Chevrolet Equinox performed the best while the Mazda6 was found to be the most distracting.

“Hands-free isn’t risk-free,” said Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research. “That’s been our message for years.”

Each hands-free system was rated on a mental distraction scale between 1 and 5, with 5 being the most dangerous. AAA said Category 1 distractions are at the same level as listening to the radio, while Category 5 is equal to taking a challenging test while driving. A rating at or above Category 2, which is the equivalent of talking on the phone, is considered potentially dangerous by AAA.

The Equinox was given a rating of 2.4, the same rating as the Buick LaCrosse, AAA said. They join the Toyota 4Runner (2.9) as the only tested vehicles with hands-free systems rated below a Category 3. A rating between 2 and 3 indicates the potential for a “moderate distraction.”

Given ratings above 3, indicating the chance for “high distraction,” were the Ford Taurus (3.1), Chevrolet Malibu (3.4), Volkswagen Passat (3.5), Nissan Altima (3.7), Chrysler 200C (3.8) and Hyundai Sonata (3.8). Only the Mazda6 (4.6) was given a rating above 4, which indicates “very high” distractions akin to updating social media.

University of Utah professor David Strayer, one of the report’s authors, said the higher-rated systems could be somewhat counterintuitive for drivers to use, even after being given a week to familiarize themselves with the system.

As a result, drivers were more likely to lose track of their surroundings even as they kept their eyes on the road and hands on the steering wheel. Drivers can then spend between 15 and 27 seconds after they stop using the system trying to assess factors including their location, Strayer said.

“That information was lost while they were talking” to the voice-activated systems, Strayer said. Strayer conducted the research with Utah professor Joel Cooper.

Drivers can drive the length of three football fields while going 25 mph during a 27-second span, AAA said.

Nelson said AAA is working with manufacturers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and others to create safer systems. In the meantime, he said, drivers should use caution when using these voice-command systems or avoid using them altogether, even when at seemingly safe positions such as a stoplight.

You can reach John Irwin at jirwin@crain.com.


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