Imagine you’re cruising around town in your 2015 Chrysler 200c or your new Hyundai Sonata and you need to make a call or send a text via your on-board information system. You think it is perfectly safe to do so because it is a hands-free device. These devices, however, have been rated as “high distraction” devices, according to a study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the University of Utah.
The study results, released in October, also found that “all of [the devices studied] were cognitively taxing enough to be potentially dangerous.” The danger of cognitive distraction continues, in some instances, up to 27 seconds after the desired command is executed.
“Such [cognitive] distractions can slow reaction times and cause inattention blindness, [causing] drivers [to miss] objects on the road, such as stop signs, pedestrians, or other cars, which can lead to a crash,” the study states.
We all know what that “inattention blindness” feels like. It doesn’t matter what is preoccupying you — a bad day; a good day; a billboard; a daydream; or a hands-free technostraction — when you come back to yourself and realize you passed your exit three miles back, or are jolted back into reality by rear-ending the car in front of you, you have to think about what was happening while you were away.
I have been hyper-aware of distracted drivers around me for some time now. Seven years to be exact. I am constantly amazed by the sheer lack of regard for human life exhibited by these motorists. Not only for the other road users, but foregoing basic self-survival instincts has shades of Freudian thanatos (death instinct) written all over it.
But hands-free voice-activated technology is supposed to be safer than the alternatives. Not so much according to the AAA study. All of the 13 hands-free devices they included in their study were deemed distracting enough to be considered unsafe.
The hands-free devices used in the research are, from highest to lowest distraction level:
The research found a direct link between system intuitiveness and driver distraction. The study sites system complexity and errors as contributing factors in distraction levels. The study also found that the amount of practice a research subject has with the device has negligible impact on distraction levels.
I have Siri on my iPhone and can attest personally to the validity of errors and distraction. Siri can be male or female. I chose male, partly because I thought it would be a suitable replacement for a boyfriend, and … no, that was pretty much the reason.
My Siri refers to me as “Living Goddess” and I still sometimes want to break up with self-righteous, condescending little bastard. I ask him for directions to the nearest casino and he lectures me on the folly of gambling. I ask him for directions to the nearest Starbucks and he tries to send me to Albany, New York! When I asked him to call Santa Claus, the cheeky little bastard told me Santa Claus has to use both hands to drive the sleigh, so he wouldn’t be able to take my call.
The point is not that I have horrible taste in men. It is that some of Siri’s failures are so infuriating that I find myself lost and agitated when he fails me. I will pull over and use Google Maps to find my Starbucks, but the sheer stupidity of my Starbucks finder imaginary boy toy continues to annoy me long after the fight is over.
So where does this leave us? Clearly, I need therapy, or a real boyfriend, or both. But that’s not really the point of this story. The point is that hands-free technology is not as safe and innocuous as it seems.
The onboard and other “smart” devices that are designed to help us, which are generally legal to use, and make claims to safety based on laws prohibiting hand-held technology usage are perhaps no better than the technology they’ve been designed to replace.
Perhaps the object lesson here is technology and driving don’t mix. Just because we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean we should do it. In fact, the study suggests that motorists self-evaluate (be aware of risks; consider whether the task is necessary, and rethink tasks while stopped due to lingering inattention blindness) as a safety measure.
Drive safe and be well.