Cognitive distraction study shows hands-free technology not risk-free

4603263_sInattention and distracted driving are cited as the top second factor in injury crashes in the 2010 Nevada Department of Transportation crash report. The report shows that 18,675 injury crashes took place in the state with a total of 27,819 injuries. Distraction or inattention was cited in 1,338 of those auto accidents.

According to, 421,000 people in the U.S. were injured in distracted-driving accidents during 2012. Distraction is defined as any behavior that takes a driver’s attention off of the road in front of them. Texting is considered the most dangerous distraction because it encourages drivers to engage in all three types of distraction – visual, manual and mental.

Measuring mental distraction

Many studies have looked at the effects of manual and visual distraction but little attention has been given to mental. However, a new study presents an in-depth look at the effects of cognitive distraction on drivers. The study, conducted by the American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety, was called the “most comprehensive study of its kind to look at drivers’ mental distraction” by USA Today.

The goal of the study was to create a measuring scale for cognitive distraction. To create a base for the scale, researchers first tested participants on just the sole task of driving. The participants were tested in an instrumented car, a lab and a driving simulator. Data was gathered through cameras, electronic sensors and other recording devices.

Drivers were then asked to perform each of the following tasks separately:

  • Talk on a hand-held cellphone
  • Listen to an audio book
  • Talk with a passenger
  • Use a voice-to-text technology
  • Talk on a hands-free phone
  • Listen to the radio

To create a high end for the scale, researchers asked participants to complete a set of verbal and math problems that were complex.

Study findings

The results of the study showed that the most cognitively distracting task was using the voice-to-text technology. Researchers discovered that the more complicated the task was, the higher the level of mental distraction for the driver and the higher the risk of getting into a collision. Drivers missed cues that signaled a potential danger, were slower to hit their brake, showed lower levels of activity in the area of the brain associated with safe driving, and visually scanned their environment less frequently.

Nevada has established laws prohibiting texting and the use of hand-held cellphones while driving. However, the new study indicates that even hands-free technology may not be safe to use. To avoid putting their lives and the lives of others at risk, drivers should eliminate all sources of distraction when they are behind the wheel.

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