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Hands-free devices are not risk-free devices for drivers, researchers say

SALT LAKE CITY — Although voice-command systems allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road, they may make it hard for drivers to keep their minds on the road.

It takes a driver up to 27 seconds to regain focus after using a smartphone or vehicle voice system to ask for directions, send a text, take a call or change music, according to a study performed by University of Utah researchers. This means after terminating voice commands, a driver traveling at 25 mph could reach a distance of three football fields before regaining focus.

"This technology that is being put into the car in many cases is providing cool features and functions that just aren't really compatible with driving," said study co-author and U. phycology professor David Strayer. "We don't multitask as good as we think or would like. We're just not that good at it."

Strayer and U. assistant psychology professor Joel Cooper conducted two experiments observing drivers' distractions — one testing voice-command systems in cars and the other on phones. Distraction levels for all voice-command systems were potentially dangerous, according to the research.

Researchers measured drivers' distraction using AAA's five-point scale, with one being mild distraction, no more dangerous than listening to music in the car; and anything above a two considered potentially dangerous.

To test distraction levels, drivers pressed a switch attached to their thumb when an LED light flashed in the car. Researchers noted how voice interactions reduced these reaction times and tracked the time drivers kept their eyes on the road, mirrors and dashboard. Participant surveys about perceived distraction were also taken into consideration.

More than 250 people between the ages of 21 and 70 participated in the study. Older people were more apt to distraction than younger people, likely because they were more unfamiliar with the technology, Cooper said.

After initial testing, participants had a week to practice using the voice-over technology before more testing. Although marginal improvements were made, drivers were still highly distracted, Cooper said.

Google Now ranked as the least distracting of the three vocal phone systems at 3.0 to 3.3, followed by Apple Siri at 3.4 to 3.7, and then Microsoft Cortana at 4.1. Voice texting was more dangerous than making calls or changing music, according to the study.

Truck driver Spencer Savage, 25 of Riverton, uses the voice-command feature on his iPhone daily. He estimates that of every 10 drivers he passes, nine have phones in their hands. Although the study is interesting, Savage doubts phone-absorbed drivers will change their use of voice commands.

"When you're driving all the time, convenience is worth the risk, so I don't think I'll change," Savage said. "As long as you are smart about it, (using voice commands is) safer than straight texting in the car."

But test results show that using certain voice command systems while driving can be equally or more distracting than texting while driving. Out of the 10 2015 vehicle systems that were tested, Mazda 6's Connect was the most distracting at 4.6 — a distraction rate higher than updating social media while driving.

Chevy Equinox's MyLink and Buick Lacrosse's IntelliLink were the least distracting, both at 2.4. Toyota 4Runner, Ford Taurus, Chevy Malibu, Volkswagen Passat, Nissan Altima, Chrysler 200c and Hyundia Sonata voice systems fell between 2.9 and 3.8.

The quality and accuracy of the voice commands correlated to the distraction level, Strayer said. The easy-to-use voice systems were usually lower on the AAA scale, and the more rigid systems caused more distractions.

"When the technology doesn't work, when it calls the wrong person or sends a gibberish message, your primary task shifts completely from driving to try to correct that errant behavior," Stayer said. "That is really a bad situation."

AAA invited representatives from iPhone, Google, Microsoft and the companies of the cars involved in the study to a conference to discuss the results of this research study.

The response from companies was generally positive, said AAA Director of Traffic and Safety Jake Nelson. The companies want to update their voice-over products to decrease distractions when they roll out future products, Nelson said.

For now, Nelson continues to remind drivers that hands-free does not mean risk-free.


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