Dangerous mental distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, despite the common belief that hands-free technologies make it easier and safer for motorists to text, talk on the phone or even use social networking sites while they drive, according to findings from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Cognitive distraction expert Dr. David Strayer and his research team at the University of Utah measured brainwaves, eye movement and other metrics to assess what happens to drivers' mental workload when they attempt to do multiple things at once, building upon decades of research in the aerospace and automotive industries.
The research included cameras mounted inside an instrumented car to track eye and head movement of drivers; a Detection-Response-Task device known as the "DRT" to record driver reaction time in response to triggers of red and green lights added to their field of vision; and a special electroencephalographic (EEG)-configured skull cap to chart participants' brain activity so that researchers could determine mental workload.
The research found that as mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, drivers scan the road less and they miss visual cues, potentially resulting in drivers not seeing items right in front of them, including stop signs and pedestrians. With a predicted fivefold increase in infotainment systems in new vehicles by 2018, AAA is calling for action as result of this research.
"There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies," AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet said in a statement. "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."
Based on the research, AAA put out a statement urging the automotive and electronics industries to open a discussion limiting use of voice-activated technology to core driving-related activities such as climate control, windshield wipers and cruise control, and to ensure these applications do not lead to increased safety risk due to mental distraction while the car is moving, as well as disabling certain functionalities of voice-to-text technologies such as using social media or interacting with email and text messages so that they are inoperable while the vehicle is in motion.
The organization is also using the findings to promote dialogue with policy makers, safety advocates and industry leaders to ensure that these emerging in-vehicle technologies won't lead to unintentional compromises in public safety. As part of this effort, AAA has already met with safety advocates and provided copies of the report to the CEOs of all major U.S. automakers.
"This study constitutes the most in-depth analysis to date of mental distractions behind the wheel. AAA is hopeful that it will serve as a stepping stone toward working in collaboration with automakers to promote our shared goal of improving safety for all drivers," Darbelnet said. "Specifically, these increasingly common voice-driven, in-vehicle technologies should be limited to use for just core driving tasks unless the activity results in no significant driver distraction."