AAA: Hands-free technology distracts drivers

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety says new research released Tuesday shows hands-free systems such as Apple's Siri, GM's MyLink and Ford's Sync pose serious distractions to drivers

The new hands-free technologies, which are designed to be less distracting, may actually have the opposite effect, according to the AAA Foundation, the research arm of the motoring and travel organization. But it says it is possible to design hands-free technologies that keep drivers' attention more focused on the road.

To assess "real-world" impact, AAA compared changing radio stations manually and voice-dialing to the voice-activated systems found in six automakers' vehicles. It found most systems were significantly more distracting.

Toyota Motor Corp.'s Entune system was the best. On a five-point scale, it garnered the lowest cognitive distraction ranking — 1.7 — which is similar to listening to an audio book.

Other systems tested included Hyundai Motor Co.'s Blue Link (2.2), Chrysler Group LLC's Uconnect (2.7), Ford Motor Co.'s SYNC with MyFord Touch (3), Mercedes-Benz's COMAND (3.1) and General Motors Co.'s MyLink (3.7).

The study also separately assessed Apple's Siri (version iOS 7). "Researchers used the same metrics to measure a broader range of tasks including using social media, sending texts and updating calendars. The research uncovered that hands- and eyes-free use of Apple's Siri generated a relatively high category-4 level of mental distraction," AAA said.

The key issue in the relative distraction of the systems, the study said, "appeared to be the duration of the interaction. This element was driven by the verbosity of the system, the number of steps required to execute an action, and the number of comprehension errors that arose." For infotainment tasks, Toyota's Entune system required the least amount of time-on-task, while Chevrolet's MyLink required the most, the study found.

During driver simulator testing, there were two "crashes" that occurred while using Siri, and only one one other when a driver used a menu-based system.

AAA is calling for developers to address contributing factors to mental distraction including complexity, accuracy and time to complete a task. AAA CEO Bob Darbelnet said "it is clear that not all voice systems are created equal, and today's imperfect systems can lead to driver distraction. ... AAA is confident that it will be possible to make safer systems in the future."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans to address voice-activated systems by unveiling future guidelines to automakers. But NHTSA is issuing voluntary guidelines rather than regulations, giving automakers significant flexibility in developing systems.

"As part of this work, the agency will perform its own independent analysis, review the new research AAA released today, along with the findings of other organizations that are conducting research in this area," NHTSA said in a statement.

A NHTSA study last year found the number of wrecks in which drivers were distracted — on a phone, applying makeup, eating or other diversions — declined in 2011. But the number of people killed in those crashes rose 8 percent in 2011 to 3,331 fatalities, accounting for one in every 10 traffic deaths.

The number of crashes reported to involve cellphone use rose from 47,000 in 2010 to 50,000. But there is some good news: Cellphone-related traffic deaths fell 6 percent to 385. The number injured in crashes involving cellphone use also dropped, from 24,000 to 21,000.

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