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Study: Cognitive distraction associated with hands-free technology

The state of New Jersey has taken legislative action over the last several years to improve the safety of roads in Hunterdon County. As a result of these new laws, drivers are no longer allowed to use hand-held cell phones while driving. It has long been a common belief that drivers who use hands-free technology are at a lower risk of getting into an auto accident than drivers with hand-held phones.

This has fueled a host of new technology in vehicles coming off of the assembly lines as auto manufacturers and the technology industry develop voice activated in-vehicle devices. These devices allow drivers to send messages and make phone calls without having to take their hands off of the steering wheel or their eyes off of the road. However, a new study released earlier this year questions the safety of these devices.

Studying cognitive distraction

The American Automotive Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety conducted a large scale study on cognitive distraction. According to USA Today, over 150 participants allowed researchers to study their actions and behaviors in a series of experiments conducted in three different settings. The study is considered the most in-depth examination of cognitive distraction to date.

Researchers used a lab, driving simulators and instrumented vehicles, recording data with the help of sensors, cameras and other devices. Participants were given a series of tasks that included talking to a passenger, using a voice-to-text technology, listening to books and music, using a hand-held cell phone and using a hands-free cell phone. In addition, drivers were also recorded performing the sole task of driving in order to create a base rating for the scale.

The truth about voice technology

When researchers examined the data, they found the more complicated a task was, the higher the level of cognitive distraction, putting voice-to-text technology at the top with a rating scale of 3.06. The second highest task on the scale was hand-held cell phone usage at 2.45. The higher risk tasks showed the following driving behaviors:

  • Less visual scanning of the driving environment.
  • Missed visual cues that could alert to a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Slower physical reaction of hitting the brakes.
  • Reduced accuracy in peripheral detection test.
  • Lower brain activity.

Researchers are hoping that auto manufacturers and the technology industry will take the findings of the study as a sign that more research needs to be placed on the safety of the technology being installed in new vehicles. However, the Consumer Electronics Association’s president and CEO has called the study flawed, dismissing its findings.

Fatality rate in New Jersey

In 2011, the New Jersey State Police reported that 627 people died in car crashes. It is unknown how many people were injured or how many of these accidents were caused by a driver who was distracted. However, distraction.gov states that in 2012, 421,000 people across the U.S. were injured in accidents involving distracted driving. Distraction is a serious problem and can leave people permanently injured and unable to work. When a person has been a victim of a negligent driver, he or she should meet with an attorney to pursue appropriate compensation.