A recent study found that hands-free devices that are used for talking, texting, sending emails, and giving voice commands are not only distracting drivers, but they are also overloading our attention span in a way that influences our ability to drive safely.
According to David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah and leader of the study, these devices “lead to significant levels of distraction.”
He explained, “There may well be some things that are reasonable to do in the car with voice commands, things like say ‘turn the heat up,’ ‘turn the windshield wipers on’— commands that are short and simple, relatively infrequent and not too distracting.”
However, Professor Strayer revealed that checking e-mail or Facebook while driving—even with a voice-activated system—requires much more concentration.
Professor Strayer conducted his study for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. He plans to share the findings with the automobile and consumer electronics industries. He hopes to convince these groups that in-car technologies need to be “less cognitively demanding” on drivers.
The study involved cameras that were mounted inside a car that tracked a driver’s eye and head movements. There were 38 participants, 20 men and 18 women from the university ranging in age from 18 to 30.
They were fitted with electroencephalographic (EEG) caps to chart brain activity and for the researchers to determine the “mental workload” involved in each task they did.
The study s rated mental distractions on a scale similar to the scale used for hurricanes. Activities like listening to the radio ranked as a “Category 1” distraction, with minimal risk.
Talking on a cell phone, whether handheld or hands free, was a “Category 2” distraction, with moderate risk.
Listening and responding to a voice-activated email program while driving “increased mental workload and distraction levels” to “Category 3,” which is considered an extensive risk.
Interestingly, over 70% of Americans think hands-free devices in vehicles are safer, according to AAA’s studies when in fact it is quite dangerous.
Elizabeth Waterman, a Southern California psychologist familiar with the issue noted, “Driving as a task is very, very complex for the human brain … because we do it over and over, it becomes normal for us. But there is still a complex set of activities attached to it. Our attention span is limited in capacity. So, the more we add gadgets in the car, the more we’re likely to lose focus and attention on driving—and more likely to make mistakes.”