Start with this as fact: As numerous studies show, regardless of whether you are using a hand-held or a hands-free device to text, e-mail, get directions or surf the Web while behind the wheel, you are engaged in some form of distracted driving.
The question is: As technology such as voice-activated, dashboard-mounted “infotainment” systems and Google Glass become more widely used by drivers in the no-too-distant future, will driving be any more or less dangerous?
First, let’s look at some important research into this technology. Then, let’s examine whether other technology such as crash-avoidance systems can help to balance out the safety risks.
AAA Foundation: Hands-Free Is Not Risk Free
In early October, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety issued the results of a study that examined the use of voice-activated devices while driving such as Apple’s Siri or Toyota’s Entune system.
“[H]ands-free is not risk free,” David Strayer, a University of Utah researcher who helped to conduct the study, stated in a news release issued by the school.
“These new, speech-based technologies in the car can overload the driver’s attention and impair their ability to drive safely,” he added. “An unintended consequence of trying to make driving safer – by moving to speech-to-text, in-vehicle systems – may actually overload the driver and make them less safe.”
In other words, texting while using a hand-held device is considered to be highly dangerous because it involves three types of distraction: Manual, visual and cognitive (mental). Even though you may eliminate manual and visual distractions with hands-free, voice-activated technology, the mental distraction is still too risky, according to this research.
As part of this study, researchers used equipment to monitor driver behavior and reaction times when they conducted certain tasks with the voice-activated technology. While simple tasks such as adjusting the radio involved minimal distraction, more complex tasks such as texting proved to be highly distracting.
In fact, when errors occurred with the hands-free systems – for instance, the system failed to detect a voice – the mental distraction was at its highest, increasing the risk of a driver getting into a crash.
Research Shows Google Glass Offers Few Safety Benefits
A recently issued study by the University of Central Florida examined whether Google Glass presented a distracted driving “cause or cure.”
As Forbes reports, the researchers examined how 40 drivers reacted to a car in front of them suddenly slamming its brakes while those drivers were using either a hand-held phone or Google Glass to send a message. Regardless of which device they were using, the reaction was slow, the study found.
Even though Google Glass users tended to return to “normal driving” more quickly than the phone users, the Glass users also tended to drive more closely to the car in front, the researchers found.
So, the verdict here?
“While Glass-delivered messaging has benefits, it does not in any way making driving-while-messaging safe,” Ben Sawyer, the study’s lead researcher, said.
Can Crash-Avoidance Systems Balance the Equation?
If use of these devices become more and more common on our roads, will driving become more and more dangerous? Based on the above research, that would appear to be the case.
However, at the same time that hands-free communication technology is emerging, crash-avoidance technology is emerging as well.
In April, Consumer Reports published an excellent summary of these new systems, which usually feature a combination of cameras, sensors and alert signals. These systems include:
- Forward-collision warning – Checks the distance between your car and the car in front. It can emit a warning if you are too close, maximize your braking power, tighten your seat belt or automatically activate your brakes.
- Blind-spot monitoring – This system can notify you when a car is in a blind spot and/or send out a stronger alarm if you try to turn or enter a lane when a car is in your blind spot.
- Rear cross-traffic alert system – This system detects cars that are crossing your vehicle as you back up – for example, when you are pulling out of a driveway or parking spot. There are also pedestrian detection systems available.
- Lane-departure warning – This system sends out an alert when you drift out of your lane – a problem that often arises when texting while driving.
- Adaptive cruise control – This system automatically controls your speed so you maintain a safe distance from the cars in front of you.
- Vehicle-to-vehicle communication – Also known as “V2V” technology, this a wireless system that allows your car to essentially “talk” with other cars on the road. As a result, your car can avoid accidents with those cars.
So, imagine this future scenario: A driver distracted by sending a message with a voice-activated device drifts out of his lane. He recovers when his lane-departure warning alarm goes off. However, in the process, he fails to see the car in front coming to a stop. Thankfully, his forward-collision warning system automatically activates his brakes.
While this may appear to be a safer future, the bottom line is that it will be a long, long time until crash-avoidance systems became the standard rather than a luxury item. Additionally, there is always the possible that these systems could fail.
In the end, what is important is that drivers simply focus on driving instead of trying to multi-task while behind the wheel. Additionally, those who are harmed by distracted drivers need to protect their rights by seeking experience legal help.