If you think it’s okay to talk to your car infotainment system or smartphone while driving or even when stopped at a red light, you should think again. It takes up to 27 seconds to regain full attention after issuing voice commands, University of Utah researchers found in a pair of new studies for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

One of the studies showed that it is highly distracting to use hands-free voice commands to dial phone numbers, call contacts, change music and send texts with Microsoft Cortana, Apple Siri and Google Now smartphone personal assistants.

The other study examined voice-dialing, voice-contact calling and music selection using in-vehicle information or “infotainment” systems in 10 model-year 2015 vehicles. Three were rated as moderately distracting, six as highly distracting and the system in the 2015 Mazda 6 as very highly distracting.

University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer, senior author of the two new studies, had this to say:

Just because these systems are in the car doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to use them while you are driving. Far too many people are dying because of distraction on the roadway, and putting another source of distraction at the fingertips of drivers is not a good idea. It’s better not to use them when you are driving.

The research also found that, contrary to what some may believe, practice with voice-recognition systems doesn’t eliminate distraction. The studies also showed older drivers – those most likely to buy autos with infotainment systems – are much more distracted than younger drivers when giving voice commands. But the most surprising finding was that a driver traveling only 25 mph continues to be distracted for up to 27 seconds after disconnecting from highly distracting phone and car voice-command systems, and up to 15 seconds after disconnecting from the moderately distracting systems. The 27 seconds means a driver traveling 25 mph would cover the length of three football fields before regaining full attention. Professor Strayer added:

Most people think, ‘I hang up and I’m good to go.’ But that’s just not the case. We see it takes a surprisingly long time to come back to full attention. Even sending a short text message can cause almost another 30 seconds of impaired attention.

Joel Cooper, a University of Utah research assistant professor of psychology, was a co-author of the new studies. He is concerned about moving too fast and had this to say:

The voice-command technology isn’t ready. It’s in the cars and is billed as a safe alternative to manual interactions with your car, but the voice systems simply don’t work well enough.

These are the fifth and sixth studies since 2013 by University of Utah psychologists and funded by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, formerly known as the American Automobile Association. Strayer and Cooper, who ran the studies, had the able assistance of Utah psychology doctoral students Joanna Turrill, James Coleman and Rachel Hopman. The previous Utah-AAA studies devised a five-point scale: 1 mild distraction, 2 moderate distraction, 3 high distraction, 4 very high distraction and 5 maximum distraction. The following chart illustrates distraction levels for some vehicles equipped with voice-activated systems:

The new studies were conducted with participants driving the various cars at 25 mph or less around a 2.7-mile route in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood as they used voice-commands to dial numbers, call contacts and tune the radio using in-car systems, and to dial numbers, call contacts, choose music and text using smartphones. With researchers in the car, the drivers were tested for the extent of their distraction, even as they kept their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel after hitting a voice-command system button.

The drivers also completed surveys about their perceived level of distraction, and videos measured how much of the time they kept their eyes on the road, mirrors or dashboard. The in-vehicle information system study included 257 people and the smartphone personal assistant study had 65 participants, all with no at-fault accidents during the past five years. Unlike the 2013 and 2014 studies, which included primarily people in their 20s, subjects in the new studies ranged in age from 21 to 70.

In 2013, 3,154 people died and 424,000 others were injured in motor vehicle crashes on U.S. roads involving driver distraction, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The new AAA reports urge that voice activated, in-vehicle information systems “ought not to be used indiscriminately” while driving, and advise that “caution is warranted” in smart-phone use while driving. I agree with Professor Strayer who says that he doesn’t even make hands-free cellphone calls while driving.

Source: AAA Foundation For Traffic Safety

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