The potential dangers of "handsfree" behind the wheel

Blog post posted on 12/10/15 |

Sending e-mails, even with voice activation, increases the driver's reaction time.

With new cars now being fitted with voice-control functionality, it is now possible to write text messages and emails and communicate on Facebook, while driving. But this new technology has great potential for driver distraction, according to a study presented by the American Automobile Association (AAA), which warns against their growing use while driving.

"Trying to make driving safer by developing hands-free communication systems could have the unintended consequence of overloading the motorist concentration capacity and increase crash-risk," warns David Strayer, author of the study. The originality of the research conducted by the University of Utah psychologist assessed the level of distraction induced by common activities, such as listening to an audio book, having a phone conversation or answering an email by voice-control.

Using cameras and electroencephalograms (technolgy to detect electrical impulses in the brain), the scientists recorded brain activity and the movements of the head and eyes of drivers. They also calculated the reaction time to light signals placed in their field of vision.

The team borrowed a research protocol developed in aviation for measuring the proven level of mental distraction for each task, but for motorists.

The results:

  • listening to the radio is classified as category 1, or incurring minimal risk;
  • speaking "handsfree" is category 2 (moderate risk);
  • answering an email using voice-control is category 3 (significant risk).

The mental activity required for these tasks results in a longer reaction time (to a hazard). The driver is less attentive and can ignore visual signals, including (as an example) those placed in their vision just as traffic lights are about to stop other cars or pedestrians. According to David Strayer, this technology creates a "false sense of security."

In other European countries such as France, the use of hands-free kit has become illegal and penalized since June 2015. Only passengers are allowed to take calls. In the UK, hands-free kits are tolerated but the driver can still be penalized if a police officer believes that his/her conduct is distracted and he/she does not have full control of the vehicle.