Makers of cars and mobile electronics are pushing a tempting vision of the future. It is one in which you can stay fully connected while driving. In the name of safety, they provide a hands-free wireless kit for your cellphone so you can talk with both hands on the wheel. The latest additions are voice-to-text systems that let drivers send and receive texts and emails without looking at a screen. High-end cars even have touchscreens with interfaces for finding restaurants, reserving tables, and buying movie tickets while on the road.
Surely it can’t be a good idea to put all these distractions in front of drivers? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the United States says distracted drivers killed more than 3,300 people in 2011. This April it recommended that manual text entry and the display of text messages or Web content should be blocked in all moving vehicles.
Last month the U.S. automobile association AAA warned that even hands-free, voice-based systems could dangerously divert your attention from the road. I got the bone-chilling message about distracted drivers last year when one slammed into a utility pole and two others hit parked cars within a few doors of my home. Only one driver was drunk.
Drivers with their minds and eyes off the road have been crashing cars since the days of Henry Ford. But the spread of cellphones put distracted driving in the spotlight. In the early days, it was natural to think that holding the phone while talking was the problem. But more than a decade of research has debunked that assumption.
In 2002 the U.K.’s Transport Research Laboratory found that drivers talking on a hands-free set reacted more slowly than those who were just over the drunken-driving limit. Three years later an Australian study found drivers using phones hands-free or hand-held were four times as likely to crash as those not on the phone. And in 2008 University of Utah psychologist David Strayer found that talking on a hands-free phone was more distracting than talking to a passenger.
Now Strayer has returned to the lab—and he has more bad news. Sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, he compared driver response in different situations. Radio or audiobooks were judged mildly distracting. Talking on a hand-held or hands-free phone or to a passenger were all more distracting, with hand-held the worst of these. But voice-activated systems to send and receive texts and email were the worst kind of distraction.
The fundamental problem is that safe driving demands attention, but multitasking divides our finite mental resources. “Just because a new technology does not take the eyes off the road does not make it safe to be used while the vehicle is in motion,” wrote Strayer.
His data shows that talking to the voice-to-text system is more cognitively demanding than talking to a person, leaving less brainpower for driving.
Safety rules in many countries have fallen far behind the research, which has confirmed the obvious dangers of drivers taking their eyes off the road to text on a hand-held phone. In the United States, it is down to individual states to enact laws. A series of accidents helped push 41 states to ban such texting while driving. Six other states ban only younger drivers from texting in this way.
The United Kingdom banned drivers from talking on hand-held phones in 2003, but only 11 U.S. states have followed suit. The U.K. ban extends to hand-held texting. Importantly, neither country restricts using phones hands-free for talking or texting, despite all the research and horrific accidents, such as the one involving a chatting truck driver who gravely injured a London cyclist in 2011.
“It’s time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free,” says AAA President Robert Darbelnet. The group wants to limit voice controls to “core” tasks such as controlling windshield wipers and climate control, and to disable voice-to-text systems when moving. Those are good ideas, but they may be too little, too late. Two days before AAA released its report, Apple announced that its new operating system for iPhones, iOS 7, will enable car touchscreens to display text messages, with drivers able to read and reply to such messages via voice interfaces—exactly what Strayer’s research showed to be most risky.
Nobody likes to be told “hang up and drive,” but that’s the right message. Multitasking is harder than we think. And, like alcohol, it does not mix well with driving. Strayer and AAA are planning follow-up studies to learn more, but don’t expect a workaround. This is not about freeing our hands to steer; it’s about freeing our minds to drive.
Manufacturers claim the public want connectivity, but AAA says it could find little support for that. A spokeswoman for AAA says that people in her office with new cars “aren’t even interested in having those features” and find them hard to use.
But unless there is a wave of disastrous accidents, politicians are unlikely to pluck up the courage to ban such systems from cars. Insurance companies will have no such scruples. For example, if it turns out that hands-free electronics double the risk of an accident, they might double premiums, or insist systems be disabled. However, collecting data takes time. For now, all we can do is try to educate people and hope that electronics and auto companies wake up to the danger.
Ironically, in the longer term, more technology could be the answer. Self-driving cars could focus on the road and leave the people inside to chat with friends or fiddle with Facebook. That would finally rid cars of their most dangerous component—the nut behind the wheel.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.