WEDNESDAY, June 12 (HealthDay News) -- Drivers who think
hands-free devices for talking or texting are safer than handheld
cellphones are mistaken, a new report suggests.
Instead, devices such as speech-based technologies in cars can
overload drivers, taking their attention from the road and making
an accident more likely, experts say.
"Hands-free is not risk-free, even though three out of four motorists believe it is," said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "We know now that devices like voice-detect or voice-to-email systems can create substantial mental distractions, which can lead to degradation of driving performance."
Each day in the United States, more than nine people are killed
and more than 1,000 are injured in crashes that involve a
distracted driver, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention.
Brains aren't wired to multi-task, Kissinger said. "It's
virtually impossible for the brain to do two complex things at the
same time," he said.
Multi-tasking can lead to "inattention blindness," he said,
which occurs when people are concentrating on one thing and don't
see other things going on around them.
"You can literally look at something and not see it," he said. "We have seen that situation occur in the real world. We have seen people being engrossed in a cellphone conversation and run right through a red light and afterwards don't even remember seeing the red light."
Released Wednesday, the new report was prepared for AAA by
researchers from the department of psychology at the University of
They tested drivers in a variety of ways with a range of
distractions including listening to the radio, conversing with a
passenger, talking on handheld phones and using hands-free devices.
The researchers looked at reaction time, both in lab simulators and
on the road, Kissinger said.
The researchers found that reaction time slows and brain
function is compromised as mental workload and distractions
increase. Drivers check the road less and miss cues that can result
in not seeing things right in front of them, such as stop signs and
Behaviors like listening to the radio were a very mild mental
distraction, which researchers classified as a level-one
distraction, Kissinger said. Voice-activated technology, however,
was very distracting at level three, which is considered the
Another expert said inattentive driving existed before the era
of electronic devices -- hands-free or otherwise.
"Distracted driving is a big problem on the road, but it has always been a big problem, even before cellphones and other electronic devices came along," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Even so, researchers expected to see a wave of crashes as electronic devices proliferated, but the opposite is happening on the road: Police-reported crashes have been on the decline."
"[However], this doesn't mean that electronic devices aren't distracting," Rader said. "Every study, including this new one, demonstrates that they are distracting. It does mean we need to better understand how drivers are integrating these systems into the driving task."
A CDC expert agreed that hands-free devices don't solve the
problem of distracted driving.
"Hand-free devices may take away some of the visual and physical distractions that come with handling or dialing a phone, but we can't say that hands-free is risk-free, because there is still a mental distraction," said Rebecca Naumann, an epidemiologist at the CDC's Injury Center.
'"You still have the distraction that your mind is taken off of the driving," she said. "Anything that takes your hands off the wheel or your mind off the road poses a risk to safety."
"Drivers should commit to distraction-free driving," Naumann said.
Distracted driving "has real consequences," Kissinger said. "We
should heed that and minimize all the distractions while driving.
Keep our hands on the wheel and our eyes on the road and, most
importantly, keep our mind on driving."
Despite the risks, AAA is not calling for a ban on these
devices, but is starting to work with car makers to find ways to
make in-car voice and text systems safer.
Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors
Highway Safety Association, added that "our expectation is that
in-vehicle systems will improve and thus become safer. Our advice
to drivers is to not use any type of cellphone while driving."
To find out more about distracted driving, visit the
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
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