Hands-free isn’t risk-free


handsfreeWith the continual proliferation of mobile communication devices, both handheld and vehicle-based, distracted driving is becoming a major safety issue. There’s little argument on that point. But just how much distraction is tolerable, and what form it takes, is a point on which there is little if any agreement.

According to U.S. government data, one out of every 11 highway fatalities results from texting, using a cellphone or some other form of distracted driving. Another study found that approximately 12 per cent of red-light violations are caused by driver distraction.

All 10 Canadian provinces and several U.S. states have now enacted some form of cellphone/distracted driving legislation, in most cases simply prohibiting the use of handheld devices while driving.

In response to such regulatory pressures, both the aftermarket and automakers themselves have developed a broad range of hands-free communication devices for everything from simply making or taking phone calls to receiving and sending texts or e-mails, to operating on-board entertainment and navigation systems and surfing the Web.

Evidence is mounting, however, that hands-free isn’t risk free and that all these features are further complicating the driving task in a manner that makes it more dangerous. In fact, there is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the proliferation of hands-free technologies in vehicles, according to the U.S.-based AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

The Foundation cites a recent study conducted by a research team at the University of Utah, which shows that, even with the use of hands-free communication technologies that let drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, dangerous mental distractions still exist.

Drivers in the study engaged in a variety of common tasks, from listening to an audio book or talking on the phone to listening and responding to voice-activated e-mails. Using highly-sophisticated equipment, the research team monitored their brain waves and eye movement, along with other metrics, to assess their mental workload when they attempted to do multiple things at once.
As mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues, the research found. As a result, they could miss seeing things right in front of them, including stop signs and pedestrians.

Based on the results, researchers ranked tasks such as listening to the radio as a “Level-1” distraction, representing a “minimal risk.” Talking on a cellphone, either handheld or hands-free, was classified as a “Level-2,” or “moderate risk.” But listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated e-mail features increased mental workload and distraction levels of the drivers to a “Level-3” rating of “extensive risk.”

Earlier this year, a group of researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto released the results of a study showing that the part of the brain engaged when carrying out complex driving tasks — such as left hand turns at intersections — effectively shuts down when the driver is also performing an auditory task, such as talking on a phone.

Another study, at the University of Alberta, determined that drivers using a hands-free device made significantly more errors than when driving without distraction — significant errors such as crossing the centre line, speeding and changing lanes without signalling.

Those errors also corresponded with a spike in their heart rates and brain activity.

In the face of such evidence, society, automakers and safety agencies alike all seem to be demonstrating a degree of hypocrisy on the issue. While all acknowledge the dangers inherent, they are all complicit, either actively or passively, in making today’s cars and trucks as electronically connected to the outside world as our homes and offices — or more so.

It’s all in response to consumer demand, the automakers say. Today’s customers expect to be totally connected 24/7, and if they can’t be in this vehicle then they’ll buy that one, where they can be.

It’s a valid point. But it should also be tempered with some acknowledgement that the driving task is paramount. To that end, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed guidelines — voluntary at present — requesting automakers to block certain information from being viewable except when a vehicle is stopped and the transmission is in “Park.”

The (U.S.) National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has gone even further, proposing rules that would totally bar the use of most infotainment technology while a vehicle is moving.

What regulations will ultimately take effect remains to be seen. In the meantime, the onus remains on the driver to use the technologies available in a safe manner.

About Gerry Malloy

Gerry Malloy is one of Canada's best known, award-winning automotive journalists.

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