Do In-Car Voice-Enabled Devices Distract Drivers?

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Not many people outside the speech technology industry give much thought to voice recognition. Sure, Siri was cool for a while. Users marveled over its gee-whiz factor but subsequently complained that it didn't live up to the hype. Consumers were similarly impressed with newfangled cars that listened and talked back to drivers. However, the bloom was off that particular rose when the Automobile Association of America (AAA) released research in June stating that using in-vehicle voice recognition systems was not only a hindrance to drivers but downright dangerous as well.

To be sure, since its very beginning, the auto industry has continually sought ways to make driving safer, from improving cars themselves to promoting driver safety education. Despite a great deal of progress on both ends, the number of driver fatalities is sobering: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), early estimates (as of May 2013) of the number of people killed in 2012 U.S. motor vehicle traffic crashes totaled 34,080, an increase of about 5.3 percent over the number of fatalities in 2011. While at press time the NHTSA had not yet released the final figures on distracted driving fatalities in 2012, it reported that in 2011, more than 3,300 people were killed and 387,000 were injured in crashes involving distracted drivers. According to NHTSA, drivers are 23 times more likely to get into a crash if they are distracted by actions such as talking, texting, grooming, and looking at maps, among other activities. So how is it that the very speech technology that was supposed to reduce driver distraction became distracting itself?

Automakers in conjunction with speech technology providers believed that they had the answer with in-vehicle voice technology. While you may not be able to issue a command to have your car assistant put on your lipstick, the technology can perform several tasks that have been deemed distracting, such as composing, sending, and receiving texts, emails, and social media posts; getting navigation assistance; and using a phone.

The Road Signs According to AAA

AAA's research found that as mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, and drivers scan the road less. The findings were based on research carried out by David Strayer, Ph.D., a professor in the psychology department at the University of Utah. In his study, Strayer measured brainwaves, eye movement, and other metrics to determine what happens to drivers' mental workload when they try to do several things at the same time.

"The intention of this AAA cognitive distraction research was to help us better understand some of the distractions related to the use of these technologies so that we can [have a clearer view of] how it might impact driving," says Justin McNaull, AAA's director of state relations.

To measure distraction, Strayer's team used cameras mounted inside an instrumented car to track drivers' eye and head movement, a detection response task device that recorded reaction time in response to triggers of red and green lights added to their field of vision, and an electroencephalographic-configured skull cap to chart brain activity, allowing researchers to determine mental workload.

Participants were asked to perform certain tasks, such as listening to the radio, which was rated as a minimal distraction risk; talking on a cell phone (both handheld and hands-free), rated as a moderate risk; and listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features, which was found to be an extensive risk. AAA said that with a predicted fivefold increase in infotainment systems in new vehicles by 2018, it was calling for action.

"There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies," AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet said in a statement. "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."

AAA recommended limiting use of voice-activated technology to basic driving-related activities, such as adjusting climate control and using windshield wipers and cruise control; disabling some functions of voice-to-text technologies, such as the use of social media, emails, and text messaging, making them inoperable while the vehicle is in motion; and educating car owners about the safety of using speech-enabled in-vehicle car systems.

"Many people who are using hands-free systems aren't using them in a hands-free, eyes-free way. They're still manipulating the phone, looking at the screen, or pushing something," McNaull says. "Just because it's built into your vehicle doesn't mean it's something that you should use whenever you want to. It doesn't mean it's safe to use all the time."

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