Hands-free devices, especially ones that convert speech-to-text for text messaging while driving, aren't necessarily safe to use behind the wheel, according to a new study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Researchers at the University of Utah Center for the Prevention of Distracted Driving set up drivers with a brainwave-measuring device and had them simulate driving with several different types of distractions, such as talking to a passenger, listening to the radio, standard and hands-free cellphone conversations and using speech-to-text email. These so-called "cognitive distractions" can be dangerous, the study suggests.
Drivers who used a hands-free device to make a cellphone call were only slightly less cognitively distracted than those who used a handheld cellphone. Talking to a passenger was deemed equally distracting. Those who used speech-to-text devices were three times as distracted as someone who was driving with no distractions or listening to the radio.
Other distractions that contribute to car crashes but were not specifically studied in the University of Utah report include manual (hands off the wheel) and visual (eyes off the road) distractions.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, inattention is a major factor in about 25 percent of all car crashes.
"The data suggest that a rush to voice-based interactions in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety," the report says. "There is strong evidence that drivers are not necessarily safe just because eyes are on the road and hands are on the wheel."
That idea is something the public is not necessarily in agreement with that concept: AAA polls have found that about two-thirds of drivers say using handheld electronics while driving is unacceptable, compared with 56 percent who say that using hands-free devices is acceptable. More than 40 states have banned texting while driving, while none has banned the use of hands-free devices while driving.