Hands-free isn't risk-free

Sept. 6, 2016

Hands-free tech creates its own unique forms of distraction

Divided attention

Hands-free technology is supposed to be the solution to driver distraction, right? Now it turns out it might be part of the problem.

Researchers in Ireland found that even listening to the radio can be enough of a distraction to hinder your driving.

They blame it on the Perceptual Load Theory, which says that when the limited amount of attention that we each have is fully engaged, we cannot process any additional information.

They tested this theory by having people drive in a simulator while listening to radio traffic reports. Half the group were assigned the simple task of listening for a change in the speaker’s gender. The other half had the more complex job of listening for a report about a particular road.

Even with just a simple listening task, 29% of drivers in the first group were distracted enough to not notice driving by a large elephant or gorilla standing on the side of the road.

In the second group with the complex task, 77% of drivers missed the giant animal.

Drivers with the tougher listening task also paid less attention to signs and other vehicles, which affected both their reaction times and their driving speeds.

The researchers concluded that traffic safety campaigns need to set aside the message of “keep your eyes on the road,” and instead tell drivers to focus on keeping their eyes, ears and brains on the road (figuratively, of course).

The upside is that you now have a good response for the next time your spouse kicks off a road trip by announcing, “I think we need to talk.”

Giving voice to safety

In another study, researchers at Michigan State University, Eindhoven University of Technology and Stanford University found that driving aids with virtual voices also can increase the odds of an accident.

The more human the voice sounded, and the more it actually sounded like the driver, the higher the risk of a crash.

The study’s authors used a driving simulator with five different virtual instructors. Participants were asked to rate each one based on likeness to their own identity, as well as perceived friendliness, intelligence and human likeness.

The researchers found that participants preferred the voices they perceived as being most like themselves or to which they felt the most social connection.

Ironically, though, the voices preferred by the drivers were the same ones that increased their likelihood of crashing.

These findings are particularly relevant to the developers of self-driving cars where voice technologies will be critical. So don’t be surprised if the factory default voice of your first autonomous car is Pee-wee Herman.


A recent study by the Erie Insurance company uncovered a disturbing trend: Many motorists are now taking photos and posting them on social media, all while driving.

There is even a hashtag for these types of posts: #whiledriving.

This new type of distracted driving has been dubbed “double distracted.” Drivers are distracted in one way when they take the photo, and then they add on a second level of distraction when they post that photo to social media.

Looking at it another way, researchers said these drivers might actually be “triple distracted.” There’s the manual distraction of taking your hands off the wheel to handle the phone. Added to that is the visual distraction of looking at the phone instead of the road. And then on top of all that is the cognitive distraction that takes your mind off driving.

Photography #whiledriving also is time consuming. We all know how dangerous it is to text behind the wheel, but it takes way more time to capture a selfie with the perfect lighting from the most flattering angle with just the right duck face* expression.

*As of earlier this week, fish gape is now the new duck face.

Researchers warn that “quadruple distraction” may not be far behind. This is when your hands, eyes and mind are all consumed with a non-driving activity, followed by your ears when your spouse declares, “Now we really need to talk!”

About The Author: Matthews has been chronicling the unexpectedly humorous side of transportation news since 2000. The stories are all true.

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