The Big, Fat, Enormous Lie About Hands-Free Voice Control Technology

Mental Distractions While Driving

Guest Blog by Karen Bowman, Founder of Drop It And Drive

The recent release of AAA’s study— ‘Think you Know All About Distracted Driving? Think Again, Says AAA’—on hands-free voice control technology has brought back into the limelight the murky topic of hands-free and voice control technology as a solution to distracted driving.

At the end of February this year, I published ‘Hands-free Law Should be Revisited According to Canadian Study’ following CTV’s release of the Canadian study, ‘Hands-free isn’t Brain-Free, Distracted Driving Researchers Say.’ This particular study focused on cognitive distraction during left-hand turns; however, the results lend themselves to cognitive distraction when driving in general.

David Teater, National Safety Council, does an excellent job of explaining how our brains are simply not designed to multi-task (contrary to popular belief); David refers to it as ‘Toggle-Tasking’. The brain has to choose between two or more cognitively demanding tasks; driving is clearly cognitively demanding as is engaging in a conversation.

Hands-free and voice command still legal (unless you’re an L or N) but that clearly does not mean its safe. Ask someone you trust to give you an honest review of your last trip when you were fully concentrating on the road compared to when were on a hands-free call or using voice command to dictate a text message. You might find it’s only a slight difference in reaction time, but don’t underestimate the different outcome that can come from losing even a fraction of your perception/reaction time. The difference between a close call and a collision is less than one second. Alternatively, consider the last time you missed a turn or ran a stop sign or red light because you were on a call, thinking about an upcoming meeting, or were simply day dreaming and not fully focused on driving. THAT’s cognitive distraction in action.

Dr. David Strayer (who I had the privilege of meeting at the CAA/TIRF Driven to Distraction International Conference in Toronto last year where we were both speakers) is a Professor in the Cognitive and Neural Sciences area of the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah and is the director of the Center for the Prevention of Distracted Driving. Following their exhaustive research into the use of hands-free voice control technology, they found:

  • There are significant impairments to driving that stem from the diversion of attention from the task of operating a motor vehicle
  • The impairments to driving are directly related to the cognitive workload of these in-vehicle activities.
  • Compared to the other activities studied (e.g., listening to the radio, conversing with passengers, etc.) we found that interacting with the speech-to-text system was the most cognitively distracting.
  • This clearly suggests that the adoption of voice-based systems in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety.

So, what is the Big, Fat, Enormous Lie and who’s telling it? Is it the automotive industry as they try to prove that there’s a safe way to stay connected while driving? After all, consumers are demanding continuous, uninterrupted communication while driving; so, the automotive industry is just giving us what we want…right? Is it the inventors & suppliers of hands-free & voice command technology? They’re just giving consumers what they’re asking for, and then some, all while making a tidy profit. Or, perhaps the lie is people themselves desperately seeking a means to justify unsafe driving behavior in order to maintain the all important connectivity.

The ‘Lie’ is that Hands-Free is Risk-Free and it’s simply not. When it comes down to it I believe the research proves that hands-free and voice commands are unsafe due to the cognitive distraction. But, if you can’t or won’t believe the research, maybe a simpler approach is to ask yourself, “Is this call or text worth injury or death to me or someone else?”

What’s your take on the highly touted safety of hands-free voice control?

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