Hands-free doesn’t mean distraction-free

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in the United States has just published a report titled, “Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile.”


The report, based on research led by David Strayer from the University of Utah, concludes that many activities that don’t require the use of hands still pose a significant cognitive distraction that results in increased crash risk. Of the six different types of potentially distracting activities examined, including talking on a cell phone either hand-held or hands-free, the most distracting activity was using a speech–to–text system. This type of system allows users to dictate emails, texts, Facebook posts, etc. and is already available in some high-end infotainment systems.

The findings of this report probably don’t come as good news to many major automobile manufacturers who are increasingly placing complex infotainment systems into new cars and seem to be banking on hands-free interaction with these systems being safer. The vice president for public affairs at the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers was quoted in a recent New York Times article as saying, “we are concerned about any study that suggests that handheld phones are comparably risky to hands-free systems we are putting in our vehicles.”


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency in the United States responsible for automobile safety, issued voluntary guidelines in April of this year to try and get automobile manufacturers to limit the distractions from infotainment systems.  But there is a clear trend in the industry moving in the exact opposite direction and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of optimism about the auto industry changing course without mandatory legislation or regulation.


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