According to a recent study by AAA, voice to text features, which many automakers are offering in their latest vehicles, may be highly distracting. The study, conducted at the University of Utah, found that voice to text software is just as distracting as talking on a handheld cell phone. Dozens of states have already banned the use of handheld cell phones to prevent accidents. A similar study by the Southwestern Regional Transportation Center showed similar results and conclusions.
The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) provides a listing of these states along with numerous crash collection data. Maryland has not yet passed a preemption law and was not one of the states banning usage of handheld cell phones (while driving). Novice and school-bus operators, however, may see legislation aimed specifically at them. It is expected that within the next 10 years, all states will pass more stringent legislation. Novice drivers, however, are typically subject to stricter regulations and tougher enforcement penalties.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is preparing to set guidelines regarding distracted driving which includes both the use of a handheld phone as well as voice to text technology. The study suggested that stricter rules could be in the pipeline for the way for hands-free devices are used, since currently they are not banned in any state. However, we expect legislation to be enacted within the next 12-24 months.
Nissan’s New Gadget
Meanwhile, Nissan recently released a “hands-free text messaging assistant” (NissanConnect) that utilizes all voice commands, so supposedly, the driver is not impacted or distracted. However, there is a voice-activation button located on the steering wheel that must be activated. Once that is done, voice commands can be used, and no further button-searching is needed through the single dash-mounted system.
Control buttons are all steering wheel-mounted, which is a major positive feature. For example, by saying “read to text,” you can hear any existing messages. By saying “send text,” you will be able to send messages that are saved in your NissanConnect system. If there is an emergency and your air bags deploy (or you can manually utilize a button), a live person can be contacted to send assistance. If the vehicle is stolen, it can also be located.
You are able to send only custom-created messages, although you are able to reply without taking your eyes off the highway (where they belong). The display screen is always on, although it should not be looked at. Currently, this device is compatible with an iPhone. At this time, we recommend purchasing this product even though additional research is not completed. We also expect the cost to gradually decline.
AAA Urges Auto Industry to Set Limits
AAA urged auto makers and makers of portable electronics to limit voice controls to driving tasks such as operating the air conditioning, cruise control and windshield wipers. The NHTSA has proposed distracted driving guidelines which were released a few years ago. They urge automakers to deactivate web browsing as well as manual texting while the vehicle is moving.
Although these moves would save lives and money, passage of specific legislation would not be popular, and changing of existing laws has not been seriously discussed. Also, each year, car and truck manufacturers are adding new gadgets and devices that make online browsing, and other related activities much easier, and not more difficult.
Driving And Browsing Do Not Mix!
Driving while web browsing is one of the most dangerous combinations that face new drivers and we’re surprised that there is not a safety-system that shuts down the internet while the vehicle is moving. Once again, we expect future legislation to address that. It’s also possible that auto manufacturers will take an independent initiative to solve the problem. The Maryland Department of Transportation has a distracted driving page on their website (found here) that provides information on future changes in the law.
Unfortunately, these guidelines are not in the best interest of automakers who feel that keeping drivers connected will help them win market share and bring in new customers. Once web browsing is eliminated by one big car company, it is likely that most or all of the American companies will follow. And consumers like discounts on car insurance rates or any change that lowers premiums. Getting rid of browsing could ultimately help insurance prices as well.
The Alliance of Automobile manufacturers, representing 12 automakers is not commenting on the report until their experts have had a chance to review the details of the findings. They did say that the group views hands-free controls as a positive technological development as it keeps a drivers eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.
The Alliance also warned that if the government put too many restrictions on the technology being built into cars, drivers might revert back to using a handheld phone. We don’t necessarily agree with that prediction.
How the Study Worked
The researchers at the University of Utah tested 150 people who were between the ages of 18 and 36. The average age was 24 with an average of seven years driving experience. All participants were outfitted with brain sensors while they drove a modified Subaru. They were asked to perform six different tasks while driving. Those tasks were:
· Adjusting the radio station.
· Listening to a book-on-tape.
· Having a conversation with a passenger.
· Using a handheld cell phone.
· Using a cell phone with a hands-free device.
· Sending an email with voice-to-text software.
Participants were also required to drive while they took a standard test that is used by psychologists to measure brain function. The test included items such as memorizing numbers and doing math problems.
The Headset Option
The headset that drivers wore during the test had a light in the corner of their field of vision. This light would turn red or green randomly which prompted the driver to push a button on the steering wheel. Their reaction times to the light were carefully measured.
When using voice to text software, the majority of drivers displayed numerous signs of being distracted. The response times for voice to text were just as slow as when participants were using a handheld phone, and drivers were not checking their surroundings as much when working with voice to text technology.
The study also found that drivers were less distracted when doing math problems as part of the psychology test. Of course, we certainly don’t suggest that high school drivers do their math homework while driving!
New Features Increase Risk
While one of the authors of the study said that their testing did not show definitively that voice to text was unsafe, they did suggest that these new features come at a risk and that some tasks were proving riskier than others. But the evidence seems to help conclude that driver response times are negatively impacted or impaired when most tasks were studied.
AAA is planning another phase of the study that will look into more specific types of voice-activated features such as Twitter and Facebook. Naturally, driving is a full-time task that should require all of your attention. What’s next? Cooking dinner and paying bills while driving?
Using a handheld cell while driving in Maryland is still a punishable offense. The fine is $83 for your first offense, but nearly doubles to $160 if you are caught three times. The exception to the law, is of course if you have to contact 911 because of an emergency situation.
Texting while driving had already been banned. School bus drivers had also previously been prohibited from using a cell phone (or electronic devices) while driving. Currently, it is not expected that the laws will be changed or modified. As new devices and software become available, existing legislation will be reviewed, and adjusted if necessary.
April is “Distracted Driver Awareness Month.” The US Department of Transportation is offering free information at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Free online materials and brochures can be found regarding the three main categories, which are visual, physical, and cognitive. One of the main themes that the Department is trying to convey, is that these types of accidents are 100% preventable.