AAA study: When driving, hands-free does not equal risk-free

That Bluetooth device you use while driving might not be keeping you as safe as you think.

A study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released Wednesday found that using voice commands to send text messages and emails or to update your Facebook status is more distracting and dangerous than talking on a cellphone, and that danger only will increase as more cars are being built with this technology.

The research shows that greater concentration is needed to perform hands-free tasks, causing drivers to develop "inattention blindness," meaning they scan the road less frequently and fail to see what's in front of them, such as traffic signals and pedestrians.

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

There are about 9 million vehicles with "infotainment systems" on the road this year, and that number will increase to more than 62 million in 2018, the study said.

The study found that driver distraction stems from three main sources: visual (eyes off the road), manual (hands off wheel) and cognitive (mind off the task).

Researchers from the University of Utah conducted the study for AAA. They measured brainwaves, eye movement and other factors in 32 students as they performed an array of tasks such as listening to an audio book, talking on a cellphone and responding to voice-activated emails while behind the wheel.

Cameras were mounted inside a car to track eye and head movement. A Detection-Response-Task device recorded driver reaction time in response to triggers of red and green lights added to the driver's field of vision, and a special skull cap charted brain activity.

The study consistently showed that using voice-activated technologies increased mental workload and provided the greatest distraction to drivers.

"... Being an attentive driver requires three things at all times: eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, and mind on the task at hand," the study found. "Degradations in peripheral detection, brake reaction time, brainwave measurements, and visual scanning all indicate that drivers who engage in secondary tasks while driving place a greater cognitive burden on themselves. This leaves fewer resources available for the driving task and impairs performance."

AAA is urging automotive and electronic industries to join them and explore ways to limit the use of voice-activated technologies to "core-driving activities" like using windshield wipers or climate controls.

They also suggested disabling certain functions like social media or texting while the car is in motion.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving distracted drivers in 2011, and about 387,000 were injured.

Connecticut's Department of Transportation does not collect data on accidents caused by distracted driving. The DOT's Highway Safety Office said that in fiscal year 2012, local and state police departments issued 30,756 citations for violating the state's cellphone laws.

Last week, both the state House and Senate approved a transportation bill that includes language that changes the infraction level of distracted driving to a moving violation and creates a point system for offenses that will affect the driver's insurance premium.

The bill is awaiting Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's signature. The governor and his staff are reviewing the language that was included in the final bill, according to a spokesman.

i.larraneta@theday.com

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