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Do voice-activated systems reduce distracted driving, collisions?

If you buy a new car, it is more likely than ever to have voice-controlled, hands-free systems that let drivers do everything from making phone calls to texting to updating Facebook to getting directions to the nearest Starbucks. While hands-free technology has been touted as a safer alternative to the use of hand-held devices, a new study shows that drivers using voice-activated technology can become seriously, and perhaps dangerously, distracted.

The study, which was done at the University of Utah and sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, found that voice-activated systems could be not only distracting but infuriating. Drivers who were misunderstood by the system sometimes became so frustrated that they "curs[ed] the systems out," according to the neuroscientist in charge of the study.

Some cars' voice-activated systems performed better and caused less distraction than others. Drivers using Hyundai's and Toyota's systems fared better than those driving Chevrolets and even Mercedes. Those last two cars' systems distracted drivers even more than a hand-held cellphone. As bad as some of the automaker's systems were, probably the best-known name in voice-recognition, Siri, came out even worse.

Another concern of neuroscientists is that as these systems become more ubiquitous in our vehicles, people become even more addicted to their electronic devices. They no longer have to "unplug" while they're driving. Everything remains temptingly available to them. The "cognitive distraction" that results when the driver's brain is focusing on things other than the road can lead to deadly car crashes.

The neuroscientist who led the study concluded that automakers should focus on making these systems "no more distracting than listening to the radio." He also cautions drivers that they should use voice-activated systems only for "supporting the task of driving," such as for things like changing the temperature, rather than for "social interaction." However, he noted one instance where a test subject who was attempting to change the radio station actually altered the temperature instead.

Texting while driving is prohibited in Florida. However, according to the Florida Department of Transportation, "distracted driving" is considered "any mental or physical activity that takes the driver's focus off the task of driving" and can be noted by police in crash reports. This information can help a victim who is considering taking civil action against an at-fault driver after a car accident.

Source: The New York Times, "Voice Activation Systems Distract Drivers, Study Says" Matt Richtel, Oct. 07, 2014

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