Voice-Control Devices Create a Different, More Subtle, Distracted Driving Threat

Siri

Researchers find that voice-controlled or menu-driven devices create a new type of distracted driving issue.

If you haven’t heard of inattention blindness, don’t worry, it’s unlikely you have ever run across it before as you aren’t in the business of automotive safety. Inattention blindness is an example of a new and more deadly class of automotive safety issues that can be put under the heading of cognitive distractions.

Inattention blindness is a phenomenon that can cause a person engaged in a mentally demanding task to fail to notice something happening right in front of him or her, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA), which funded a study by researchers from the University of Utah. For example, let’s say you are using Siri, a voice-controlled Internet interface to access some new directions to a particular restaurant.

As you are talking with Siri, whose pleasant voice talks with you like a friend, you might ask things that might occur to you such as “How long will it take to get there?” “Are there any new online specials for today?” “Can you show me the best route to the restaurant?”

Not a Safe Situation

Now, imagine you are moving down the Interstate at 75 mph when you are asking Siri for the information. Are you safe having your “conversation?” The answer, researchers state clearly, is no. Even though you are sure that a hands-free interface like Siri is totally safe, you are not because every time you talk with Siri your mind is occupied in the two-way conversation you are having with Siri.

During the time you are occupied with the conversation with Siri, you are blind to any dangers around you, even though you may be looking at the road ahead. Though you may be looking at the road ahead, it is doubtful that you are seeing actions that are going on outside your vehicle because your mind is preoccupied working with Siri. That is the long and short of inattention blindness; you are fairly oblivious to the world outside your car.

For drivers, the results can be deadly. Hands-free devices like Siri have long been thought to be a safe alternative to either using a cellphone or using a navigation system because, it was supposed, hands-free devices allowed you to keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road ahead. That may be the case, but the inattention blindness caused by using Siri puts you in real danger.

Just how much danger? The University of Utah researchers, the team that measured cognitive distractions found that “using … Apple’s Siri while driving created higher levels of cognitive, or mental, distraction than conversing on a hands-free cellphone,” said the AAA in releasing the study recently.

Crash Risks

The auto club further noted that “epidemiological studies showing that talking on a mobile phone while driving – handheld or hands-free – quadruples crash risks.” That’s quite a finding, isn’t it? More to the point, that finding alone is turning lots of heads.

“The most significant takeaway is that this further confirms that cognitive distraction is real and that is has real consequences,” said J. Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the branch of the national auto club that funded the study. “The more we can get that message out, the better it will be.

The problem is that cognitive distraction is a very much under-investigated distraction, compared to the many studies conducted of the problems that cellphone use and texting cause for drivers, Kissinger continued.

As noted, scientists have long known about inattention blindness. It is an issue that will grow in importance much more quickly now that new cars are coming through with user-friendly menu-based navigation and information systems that require drivers to spend inordinate amounts of mental time inputting or accessing data. That interaction is a form of interaction blindness as is using the Siri device.

“As more voice-controlled devices are appear in new cars, the Utah team’s work is demonstrating how such devices can inadvertently cause a form of inattention blindness for motorists,” says the AAA.

Study Criteria Established

Researchers established the criteria for their measurements in prior studies. Led by Dr. David Strayer, a University of Utah psychology professor, the research team last year established the indexing information needed to make this study valid. The 2013 study established the indexing rating levels of cognitive distraction created by various tasks people perform when driving, AAA noted.

Using a 1-to-5 scale, the research team used a hands-free phone to establish its baseline data. For example, generally talking on a hands-free phone generated a 2.3 index rating, while using a handheld phone came in a bit higher at 2.5. AAA pointed out that using handheld cellphones is illegal in 14 states and the District of Columbia.

The new study, using a voice-controlled navigation system, with perfect speech recognition, found that when such a system is used by a driver the rating is 2.8. “The level rose to 3.6 when the navigational system produced speech-translation errors (common in systems in use today),” AAA noted of the research effort that went on during the summer of this year.

Levels of Distraction

The level rose higher still when the researchers used Siri to check current texts and compose new ones (not an unreasonable task when you consider the number of drivers who likely ignore laws banning texting in the first place), update their Twitter status or Facebook account and modify their calendars. Using Siri to handle these tasks produced a 4.1-level distraction.

Strayer’s research team conducted its study using a driving simulator or while driving an instrumented Subaru Outback through the streets of suburban Salt Lake City. “In the driving simulator, participants ‘rear-ended’ a ‘car’ they were following while using Siri (twice) and a menu-based navigational device (once). No collisions occurred on the public roads; the car used for the latter tests was equipped with a redundant braking system accessible to a passenger seated in the car for added safety,” the researchers indicated.

The researchers conducted a range of tests and found that some activities were more benign than others. For example, when drivers used the voice system to handle simple commands such as changing a radio station or adjusting the air conditioner registered 1.9 ratings. The study team compared these acts to 2013’s listening to an audiobook which generated a 1.8 rating.

“In a companion study also completed over the summer, the researchers analyzed the use of voice-based radio-tuning and phone-dialing features available in cars offered by six manufacturers. Distraction levels ranged from 1.7 for such features available through Toyota’s Entune system for those in Chevrolet’s MyLink,” AAA noted.

Safe Devices Possible

Strayer said “if the car commands are done well, so that I can say, ‘Change a radio station,’ and it’s not some cumbersome thing, it does not cause a problem…So, the good news is, it can be done in a way that’s not troublesome.”

So, what’s next? The AAA plans to share the study’s findings with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and with the auto industry in an effort to make in-car devices safer. NHTSA plans, in the next year of two, to issues voluntary guidelines to automakers, aftermarket suppliers, the wireless industry and others on minimizing distractions created by future voice-controlled devices offered to motors.

In the meantime, AAA’s traffic safety experts advise motorists to be aware that not all hands-free devices are risk-free, seeking to minimize the use of such devices while driving. “It’s very important for people to understand that voice-activated systems do not all perform equally,” Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research for the AAA, said. “Depending on how they are designed, these technologies can be more distracting or less distracting.”

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Marc Stern has spent more than 40 years in and around cars. His work has included answering motorist questions, motor vehicle reviews and evaluation and writing dealers, consumer and industry news pieces. In addition, Mr. Stern has contributed to well-known automotive publications including Popular Mechanics, Mechanix Illustrated, AutoWeek and Old Cars Weekly, among others.

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