In-Vehicle Communication Technology is Not as Safe as You Think

The problem of distracted driving is plaguing the roads of America. In 2014, 3,179 people were killed as a result of distracted drivers (according to the official US government website for distracted driving: Many people think that this problem can be avoided by using hands-free communication devices and other in-vehicle features. However, recent studies have proved that hands-free communication while driving is more dangerous than you might think.

University of Sussex Research

Research at the University of Sussex claims that driving while using a hands-free feature for communicating is just as distracting as a typical hand-held phone conversation.

The study was conducted by using a control and test group that were monitored under different conditions while they drove. The control group did not have any form of electronic distraction, and was used to compare the results of the test group. The test group was monitored while they drove and took part in a pre-recorded conversation. A speaker three feet from the driver would ask simple questions such as “Where did you leave the blue folder?” The driver then had to answer the questions. The testing group was comprised of 60 people total (20 men and 40 women).

The study found that the test group had a delayed response time of less than a second in comparison to the control group. According to the research team at Sussex University, the cause of the delayed reaction has to do with the way we mentally process information. When having a conversation, the speaker visually imagines what he is talking about, thus when asked “Where did you leave the blue folder?” the speaker will visually imagine the steps he took when he last saw the blue folder. This situation is dangerous because the mental imagery that is used to remember events, is also closely linked to the part of the brain that is responsible for monitoring your surroundings and paying attention to the road. This can result in drivers focusing on the road about four times less than normal.

Dr. Graham Hole, lecturer of psychology at Sussex University, stated that the research that was published exposed the “popular misconception that using a mobile phone while driving is safe as long as the driver uses a hands-free phone.”

Kevin Clinton, the Head of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), said in statement that he was not surprised at the study’s findings, and is currently pushing for a law that would ban the use of hands-free phone features in cars. “This can so easily be avoided by all drivers switching off their phones while driving, and only checking messages once they have stopped in a safe place.” he said.

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety Research

AAA has also recently released a study that confirms how dangerous it is to drive with hands-free phone features and other in-vehicle devices.

The study was conducted at the University of Utah and conducted three separate experiments that consisted of 40 or more test subjects per experiment. The study observed the brainwaves, eye movement, heart rate, response time, and other variables that are associated with distracted driving. Specifically, the test used cameras, a Detection-Response-Task device or “DRT”, and a special electroencephalographic (EEG) configured helmet that were all used to determine the effect of certain devices and features on cognitive workload. The test also incorporated standard practices such as a control group, and sterile test environments.

The study found that certain devices and features distracted the driver to varying degrees. These degrees of distraction were rated in a system “similar to the Saffir-Simpson scale” used to rate hurricanes: category “1” tasks posed minimal distraction and risk that didn’t pose much danger, category “2” tasks had moderate distraction and danger, and category “3” tasks that posed high distractions and were very dangerous while driving. Interestingly, the amount of mental workload is the same between talking on a hands-free phone and talking on a hand-held phone.

According to Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of AAA, “These findings reinforce previous research that hands-free is not risk-free… Increased mental workload and cognitive distractions can lead to a type of tunnel vision or inattention blindness where motorists don’t see potential hazards right in front of them.”

Action Against Distracted Driving

Alice Husband is a mother who lost her seven year old son to a distracted driver. One morning in December of 2014, Alice Husband’s son, Seth, was run over and killed by a woman who was driving while talking on a hands-free mobile phone feature.

Mrs. Husband said in an interview with BBC Radio “If my son wasn’t so excited and didn’t run, if he walked across the road — he’s a child — if the driver hadn’t been speaking on her mobile phone, all of these things could have made a difference to him, but at the end of the day it was a terrible accident and nothing is going to bring Seth back.”

Alice Bailey, of the Brake charity group, said “These are life and death decisions, these extra three car lengths is the difference between a child dying and a child living.” Bailey also stated that “We need one clear law. All phones, hand-held and hands-free, need to be banned in cars — the only safe phone is one that is switched off.”

The AAA is using its findings to promote changes in law to ensure the safety of drivers and pedestrians by changing regulation in new in-vehicle technology and the ability to use certain features of your phone while your vehicle is moving. The AAA currently distributes its published study and is meeting with policymakers and safety advocates in a push for change in legislature and product design.

Zac Pingle About Zac Pingle

Zac Pingle was born in Florida, and grew up in several places across the United States. From a young age, Zac developed a taste for writing, reading under trees and getting into trouble. Currently, Zac resides in Oregon as a college student where he aspires to become an English professor.