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Research reveals dangers of mental distraction behind the wheel

July 10, 2013
Westfield Republican / Mayville Sentinel News

BUFFALO, N.Y. - New findings from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety show dangerous mental distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, proving that "hands-free" does not always equal "risk-free."

Results from a new study conducted at the University of Utah show that as mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised and drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues. This could potentially result in drivers not seeing items right in front of them, including stop signs and pedestrians.

This is the most comprehensive study of its kind to look at the mental distraction of drivers and arms AAA with evidence to appeal to the public to not use hands-free devices, most notably voice-to-text features, while their vehicle is in motion. The results also suggest it's time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous distractions built into cars.

"This research is of critical importance because often the assumption is that hands-free features reduce visual and manual distractions," President and CEO of AAA Western and Central New York Tony Spada said. "This misconception could unintentionally provide motorists with a false sense of security when it comes to their safety behind the wheel."

Cognitive distraction expert Dr. David Strayer and his University of Utah research team measured brainwaves, eye movement and other metrics to assess what happens when drivers attempt to do multiple things at once. The research included:

Cameras mounted inside an instrumented car to track eye and head movement of drivers;

A Detection-Response-Task device known as the "DRT" was used to record driver reaction time in response to triggers of red and green lights added to their field of vision; and

A special electroencephalographic-, or EEG-, configured skull cap was used to chart participants' brain activity so researchers could determine mental workload.

Using established research protocols borrowed from aviation psychology and a variety of performance metrics, drivers engaged in common tasks, such as listening to an audio book, talking on the phone and listening and responding to voice-activated emails while behind the wheel.

Researchers used the results to rate the levels of mental distraction drivers experienced while performing each of the tasks. Similar to the Saffir-Simpson scale used for hurricanes, the levels of mental distraction are represented on a scale:

Tasks such as listening to the radio ranked as a category "1" level of distraction or a minimal risk;

Talking on a cell-phone, both handheld and hands-free, resulted in a "2" or a moderate risk; and

Listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features increased mental workload and distraction levels of the drivers to a "3" rating or one of extensive risk.

Based on this research, AAA urges the automotive and electronics industries to join us in exploring:

Limiting use of voice-activated technology to core driving-related activities, such as climate control, windshield wipers and cruise control, and to ensure these applications do not lead to increased safety risk due to mental distraction while the car is moving;

Disabling certain functionalities of voice-to-text technologies, such as using social media or interacting with e-mail and text messages, so they are inoperable while the vehicle is in motion; and

Educating vehicle owners and mobile device users about the responsible use and safety risks for in-vehicle technologies.

AAA also is using the findings to promote dialogue with policy makers, safety advocates and industry to ensure these emerging in-vehicle technologies won't lead to unintentional compromises in public safety. As part of this effort, AAA has already met with safety advocates and provided copies of the report to CEOs of all major U.S. automakers.

"This study constitutes the most in-depth analysis to date of mental distractions behind the wheel," Spada said. "AAA is hopeful that it will serve as a stepping stone toward working in collaboration with automakers to promote our shared goal of improving safety for all drivers."

To view the full Cognitive Distraction in the Vehicle report, the AAA Foundation's Research Compendium on Cognitive Distraction or AAA's Distracted Driving Fact Sheet, visit Broadcast Quality B-Roll and video is also available.

As Upstate New York's largest member services organization, AAA provides nearly 860,000 members with travel, insurance, financial and automotive related services. Since its founding in 1900, AAA has been a leading advocate for the safety and security of all travelers. Visit AAA at or download the mobile app at



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