AAA Study: Hands-Free Isn't Risk-Free

What do you suppose is the most dangerous thing you can do in your car? According to new findings by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, it's listening and replying to voice-activated email; it received the highest score of 3 on the AAA study's scale — meaning it constitutes an extensive risk. What researchers are deducing is that, despite a trend toward hands-free technology, dangerous mental distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.

AAA claims that the study, assisted by a research team at the University of Utah, is the most comprehensive of its kind to date. Researchers measured brain waves, eye movement and other metrics to assess what happens to drivers' mental workload when they attempt to perform multiple tasks at once. Distractions such as listening to the radio rated the lowest score of 1 on the scale, posing minimal risk, but talking on a hand-held or hands-free cellphone rated a 2, a moderate risk. The research demonstrates that as distractions increase, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised and drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues, putting pedestrians and other motorists at risk.

Armed with that data, and in anticipation of a five-fold increase in multimedia systems in vehicles by 2018, AAA plans to lobby U.S. automakers to limit the use of voice-activated technology to core activities such as climate control, windshield wipers and cruise control. It also recommends the disabling of voice-to-text technologies such as social media and email while the vehicle is moving.

"There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies," AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet said in a statement. "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."

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