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Cognitive distraction study shows risks with hands-free devices

| May 3, 2014 | Motor Vehicle Accident

Operating a motor vehicle always carries some risk for Chicago residents. Distracted drivers are found on the roads every day across the nation, and their preoccupation with things unrelated to driving often result in car accidents. With laws in place that prohibit the use of all hand-held devices while operating a vehicle, drivers may be unaware of exactly how distracted they really can be when using their hands-free attachments and features. A June 2013 study by the American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety shows that even if a driver’s hands and eyes are where they should be, cognitive distraction, or having the mind off the task it is performing, can cause serious impairments that greatly affect driving. In fact, no matter what causes the distraction, as the mental workload increases, reaction times become greater and brain function is compromised. This indicates that the prevailing opinion among motorists that hands-free is a completely safe option is incorrect. Study details  The study aimed to thoroughly document the results of various forms of cognitive distraction in drivers. Scientists placed drivers in a laboratory setup, driving simulator and instrumented vehicle, and studied participants as they performed the following tasks in each environment:

  • Listening to the radio
  • Listening to a book on tape
  • Conversation with a passenger
  • Conversation over a handheld phone
  • Conversation using a hands-free phone
  • Using a speech-to-text email system

Non-distracted driving and complex verbal and math problems were used as anchors for the study. During each test, scientists measured eye movement, brain waves and other metrics to assess each driver’s distraction level. Key findings  Distracted drivers undergoing the peripheral detection test portion of the study consistently displayed missed cues, decreased accuracy, decreased visual scanning, and increased reaction time. Additionally, cognitive distraction resulted in an increased reaction time when drivers were forced to brake unexpectedly. Brain activity was suppressed in all areas necessary for safe driving. While listening to the radio or book on tape was not even twice as distracting as regular driving, engaging in conversations with others, whether present in the vehicle or via a cell phone, was between 2.33 and 2.45 times as distracting as simple driving. Even the hands-free cell phone conversation was 2.27 times as distracting for drivers to participate in.  The hands-free, speech-to-text systems that are commonly installed in many vehicles today resulted in the highest level of cognitive distraction of all of the assessed tasks at 3.06 times as distracting as regular driving. Distracted driving is a real problem for drivers across Illinois and the greater United States. While visual and manual distractions have been thoroughly tested by industry watch groups, cognitive distractions are only now receiving the attention necessary for people to make informed decisions regarding the safety of using hands-free systems while driving.