Study shows risks from communicating while driving

Hands-free technologies might make it easier for motorists to text, talk on the phone, or even use Facebook while they drive, but a new AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study shows dangerous mental distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

The Milford Mirror urges motorists to pay attention to the study and heed common sense: Don’t carry on phone conversations while driving.

With a predicted five-fold increase in new vehicle infotainment — information based media — systems by 2018, AAA recently spread the word that the organization sees a major on-the-road public safety crisis ahead and is calling for action.

“There is a looming public safety crisis ahead as the number of these in-vehicle technologies increase,” said Lloyd P. Albert, AAA Southern New England senior vice president of public and government affairs. “It’s time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions that are built into cars, especially since there’s a common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free.”

Research conducted at the University of Utah found that as a driver’s mental workload and distractions increase, the following occurs:

Reaction time slows.

Brain function is compromised.

Drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues, such as stop signs and pedestrians, who at times can be right in front of them.

The AAA organizations says this is the most comprehensive study of its kind to look at the mental distraction of drivers and is proof that drivers should not use these voice-to-text features while their vehicle is in motion.

Cognitive distraction expert Dr. David Strayer and his research team at the University of Utah measured brain waves, eye movement and other metrics to assess what happens to drivers’ mental workload when they attempt to do multiple things at once, according to a AAA press release.

In the study, researchers rated various levels of distraction, representing them on a scale similar to the one used for hurricanes. For example:

Tasks such as listening to the radio, ranked as a category “1” level of distraction — a minimal risk — but still a risk;

Talking on a cell phone, both handheld and hands-free, resulted in a level “2” — considered moderate risk, depending upon the nature of the conversation.

Listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated voice mail, dialing, and email features increased mental work load and the distraction level of drivers. This was rated as a “3” — one of extensive risk.

Based on the research, AAA is urging the auto and electronics industries to find new ways to limit the use of voice-activated technology to driving-related activities, such as climate control, windshield wipers; and cruise control. At the same time, the auto group is encouraging the industry to disable certain functions of voice-to-text technologies such as using social media or interacting with email and text messages so they’re inoperable while the vehicle is in motion.

Driving is a task of its own. Multi-tasking has been all the rage since life got so busy, but driving and performing other tasks is a multi-tasking scenario that should be avoided.