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Hands-free tech not safe for driving, study shows


Hands-free technologies for making phone calls or sending texts are not any safer for drivers, whose abilities decrease as distractions increase, according to a study sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

“People go into what we like to call ‘tunnel vision’ as they become more distracted,” said Cindy Antrican, public affairs manager for Dayton’s AAA office. “Their brains stopped thinking about what they were doing.”

The study, released Wednesday and done by cognitive distraction experts at the University of Utah, measured brainwaves, eye movement and other metrics to see the impact to drivers as they attempted different tasks. The study found that listening to the radio was a minimal risk. Talking on a cellular phone, whether hand-held or hands-free, was rated a moderate risk.

But listening to and responding to voice-activated email or texting features was rated an extensive risk, and citing a predicted five-fold increase in infotainment systems in new vehicles by 2018, AAA has called for auto manufacturers to add safety features, such as disabling voice-to-text technologies while the vehicle is in motion.

Already, people are dictating texts, emails or social media posts while driving, using voice-activated programs installed in newer cars. IHS Automotive reported that, in 2012, 80 percent of the new cars sold in North America and Europe included some type of voice-activated controls. But the study found that, the more distracted drivers became, the less they checked mirrors, looked around or processed objects they encountered.

“They couldn’t see things right in front of them,” Antrican said. “Things like pedestrians. Things like stop signs.”

Texting has already been a concern. As of January, 39 states and the District of Columbia have enacted texting bans. Ohio’s ban went into effect in August. But only 10 states, plus Washington, D.C., have banned hand-held cellular phone use. AAA states that those bans should go even further.

“We have long thought, and this is a commonly held perception, that hands free is safer,” Antrican said. “I think we just proved that that perception is not accurate.

Ohio State Highway Patrol spokeswoman Lt. Anne Ralston said that operating a vehicle is a complex behavior, requiring cognitive and physical abilities to be in sync with each other. Any distraction, “whether it’s daydreaming, texting, using your hands-free version or talking to someone in the car” can affect those abilities, particularly when there are several of them, Ralston said.

“Limit those distractions, put the phone down, keep your mind focused on operating that vehicle safely,” Ralston said. “Make that phone call or send that text message when you get to your destination safely.”



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