Hands-free phone technology still distracts drivers, study finds

In-vehicle information systems aren't very good at solving safety-affecting distraction. That should serve as a warning that "hands-free" technologies can be very "cognitively demanding," a report has found.

Study hands-free texting while driving dangerous
Credit: Thinkstock

It was a decade ago, back in 2005, that Network World wrote that many enterprises were beginning to ban employees from using "wireless handsets" in the car. Remember the Palm Treo? There was one main reason for the ban—corporate liability in the event of an accident.

Today, we're used to the idea of government-mandated hands-free calling for safety reasons.

But a new report (Factsheet PDF) is shedding doubt on just how safe hands-free technology actually is, even with automotive in-vehicle information systems (IVIS)—the screens in the car designed specifically for the purpose.

Not concentrating

Mental distraction can last for as long as 27 seconds after performing a hands-free operation on an IVIS, a new study from the American Automobile Association Foundation says.

The report suggests that the delay before the brain recovers from the action is a safety hazard.

The cars

AAA's study looked at 10 different vehicles and systems that ranged from Ford's MyFord Touch to Volkswagen's Car-Net and discovered "that IVIS use is associated with moderate to high levels of cognitive distraction for the driver," the report says.

Pure Android Auto and Apple's CarPlay were not tested. Nor were self-mounted smartphones or tablets. I've written about Google's product before in "Android Auto extends your phone to your car."

It's worth noting that OEM automotive systems have longer development cycles than smartphones, so they may not sport the most recently available development advances.

But still, you'd expect the OEM products to excel because they're designed for the job. They didn't.

Practice not making perfect

There was a "moderate to high level of cognitive workload, while drivers were at no time required to take their eyes off the road or hands off the wheel," the tests found.

They also found that practice didn't eliminate the distraction much. Practice improved interactions a bit, but "intuitiveness and complexity ratings were not affected as a result of practice."

Ratings also included a test-standard workload. They were "moderate to high," according to the study.

The study

AAA had 257 individuals participating with a roughly equal female/male mix. Ages ranged from 21 to 70 years old.

Contact calling, number dialing, and music selection were among the tasks given to the participants, and they had a week to practice.

Older drivers had more difficulty, the study found.

Plus, the study was able to determine which IVISs were better than the others from the results. Chevy's Equinox MyLink had the worst rating of the tested systems.

'Lingering' impairment

The report should "serve as a warning that 'hands-free' technologies can be very cognitively demanding," it says.

"Compared to our earlier research, many of the IVIS interactions appear to be significantly more demanding than typical cellphone conversations," AAA adds.

And it says that just because a driver ends a phone call, it doesn't mean they're no longer impaired. That impairment "lingers" up to 27 seconds, it thinks.

To put that in context, at 25 MPH a car would have traveled almost 1,000 feet

It also means that the distraction of even dialing at a stoplight could last into the period where the stoplight has turned green, the report points out.

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