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Siri voice texting no safety remedy for distracted driving – reaction times still double

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As of April, 2013, 10 U.S. states, plus D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and all ten Canadian provinces, prohibit all drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving. No state or province bans all cellphone use for all drivers, but 36 states and D.C. ban all cellphone use by novice drivers. Currently, 39 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban text messaging for all drivers., and an additional six states prohibit text messaging by novice drivers according to data compiled by the  Governors Highway Safety Association. Fresh research indicates that more stringent and comprehensive restrictions on the use of cellphone mediated communications technology by motor vehicle operators is badly needed.

However, no North American jurisdiction bans hands-free cellphone use, including voice-to-text technology by drivers, even though research has consistently shown that in terms of causing driver distraction, hands-free technology is no better than handheld. And while texting drivers may believe they’re being more responsible and careful when they use the voice-to-text method, new research findings reconfirm that those applications offer no real safety advantage over manual texting.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has determined that using cellphones—including hands-free units—in voice mode increases crash risk fourfold, and that texting—which distracts visually, physically and cognitively—increases risk sixfold. The Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) says laws banning handheld phones while allowing hands-free use provide no safety benefit, possibly even increasing accident rates by encouraging drivers to chatter more and longer under false belief they’re safe, and is urging governments to expand their bans. Doctors Nova Scotia argues that allowing hands-free units merely places phones out of sight, while drivers continue to talk, distracted from due diligence, and crash risk remains 4x greater.

Hands-free phones don’t eliminate cognitive distraction focused on conversations engaged in. Donning headsets or changing phone settings while driving diverts attention from the road, increasing crash risk. The U.S. National Safety Council advocates banning all cellphone use by automobile operators. An Ontario Medical Association meta-analysis of studies from around the world indicates cellphone use affects drivers’ cognitive function, visual concentration, information processing efficiency and reaction time, reduces driver field of view, results in less mirror-checking, decreased distance maintained between vehicles, and more frequent panic braking, putting behind-the-wheel cellphone users and anyone in their path at significantly greater risk, regardless of whether they’re on hands-free or hand-held phones. The analysis also notes that cellphone use while driving poses nearly the same risks as driving at the legal alcohol limit.

Driving while intoxicated (DWI) is now almost universally considered socially inappropriate and intolerable, but a growing body of research indicates that driving while texting DWT could be as bad or even worse a public safety hazard than DWI, and should be just as socially unacceptable as driving drunk. According to a U.K. Transport Research Laboratory study commissioned by the Royal Automobile Club Foundation, motorists sending text messages while driving are “significantly more impaired” than ones who drive drunk. The study showed texters’ reaction times deteriorated by 35%, with a whopping 91% decrease in steering ability, while similar studies of drunk driving indicate reaction times diminishment of a relatively modest 12%. By that measure, DWT is three times more dangerous than DWI, and should logically be treated as severely, if not more so, both under the law and in terms of social censure.

Voice command technology to control vehicle systems and automotive infotainment devices like Apple’s Siri Eyes Free, Ford SYNC, and Android Vlingo is becoming increasingly integrated into newer-model cars, along with voice-to-text applications, but while texting drivers may believe they’re being responsible and careful when using voice-to-text systems, new research underscores that voice-to-text offers no real safety advantage over manual texting.

In the 2012 WWDC keynote, Apple’s senior vice president of iOS Software Scott Forstall unveiled Siri Eyes Free, noting: “You’ve heard of hands free before. Hands free allows you to keep your hands on the steering wheel while you use your phone. Well, we want to integrate Siri even better with the car. And so we’re working with a number of car manufacturers to enable you to use a button right on the steering wheel to bring up Siri.”

General Motors’ subcompact Chevrolet Sonic and sub-subcompact Chevrolet Spark are the first automobile models to market with Apple’s Siri Eyes Free integration via Chevrolet’s MyLink infotainment system, allowing users to make phone calls, select and play music from their iTunes library, listen to and compose text messages, use Maps to get directions, read notifications, access Calendar information, add reminders, and so forth. Both Sonic and Spark have that steering wheel button Mr. Forstall mentioned to activate Siri. Eight other automakers have announced that they will be incorporating Siri into similar systems: BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Land Rover, Jaguar, Audi, Toyota, Chrysler, and Honda.

Last week, results of a study sponsored by the Southwest Region University Transportation Center and conducted by the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute (TTI—a unit of the Texas A&M University System) were released, reconfirming that hands-free is a false panacea for driving safety. The TTI study is the first of its kind, based on performance of 43 research participants driving an actual vehicle on a closed course. Other research efforts have evaluated manual versus voice-activated tasks using devices installed in a vehicle, but the TTI analysis is the first to compare voice-to-text and manual texting on a handheld device in an actual driving environment.

Drivers first navigated the course without cellphones to establish a performance baseline. Each driver then negotiated the course three more times performing a series of texting exercises once using each of two voice-to-text applications (Siri for the Apple iPhone and Vlingo for Android), and once texting manually. Researchers measured the time it took each driver to complete the tasks, also noting how long it took for the drivers to respond to a light that came on at random intervals during the exercises.

Major findings from the study included:

  • Driver response times were significantly delayed no matter which texting method was used. In each case, drivers took about twice as long to react as they did when they weren’t texting. With slower reaction times, drivers are less able to take action in response to sudden roadway hazards, such as a swerving vehicle or a pedestrian in the street.
  • The amount of time that drivers spent looking at the roadway ahead was significantly less when they were texting, no matter which texting method was used.
  • For most tasks, manual texting required slightly less time than the voice-to-text method, but driver performance was roughly the same with both.
  • Drivers felt less safe when they were texting, but felt safer when using a voice-to-text application than when texting manually, even though driving performance suffered equally with both methods.

Christine Yager

Christine Yager, a TTI Associate Transportation Researcher who managed the study, says the findings offer new insight, but only a part of the knowledge that’s needed to improve roadway safety. “Understanding the distracted driving issue is an evolving process, and this study is but one step in that process,” she says. “We believe it’s a useful step, and we’re eager to see what other studies may find.”

The study’s results are being published during National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Numerous agencies, including the Texas Department of Transportation are sponsoring public awareness campaigns to highlight the dangers of driving distractions, particularly those associated with cell phone use.

Another TTI study now underway is examining the motivations and attitudes of distracted drivers. Results from the focus groups and a 3,000-driver survey are expected in late summer, and will include a look at which demographic groups are most affected by the distracted driving issue.

Reportedly, some 35% of drivers admit to reading a text or email while driving at least once a month, with 26% admitted to typing one, according to AAA data.

You can read the full study at tti.tamu.edu (pdf).

In a previous study also managed by Ms. Yager, TTI researchers determined that a driver’s reaction time is doubled when distracted by reading or sending a text message. The study reveals how the texting impairment is even greater than many experts believed, and demonstrates how texting drivers are less able to react to sudden roadway hazards.

The study was the first published work in the U.S. to examine texting while driving in an actual driving environment, and consisted of three major steps. First, participants typed a story of their choice (usually a simple fairy tale) and also read and answered questions related to another story, both on their smartphone in a laboratory setting. Each participant then navigated a test-track course involving both an open section and a section lined by construction barrels. Drivers first drove the course without texting, then repeated both lab tasks separately while driving through the course again. Throughout the test-track exercise, each participant’s reaction time to a periodic flashing light was recorded.

Reaction times with no texting activity were typically between one and two seconds. Reaction times while texting, however, were at least three to four seconds. Worse yet, drivers were more than 11 times more likely to miss the flashing light altogether when they were texting. The researchers say that the study findings extend to other driving distractions that involve reading or writing, such as checking e-mail or Facebook.

Forty-two drivers between the ages of 16 and 54 participated in the research. In addition to the reaction-time element, researchers also measured each driver’s ability to maintain proper lane position and a constant speed. Major findings further documented the impairment of texting when compared to the controlled driving conditions.

Drivers were less able to:

  • Safely maintain their position in the driving lane when they were texting and their swerving was worse in the open sections of the course than in barreled sections.
  • Maintain a constant speed while texting, tending to slow down in an effort to reduce the demand of the multiple tasks. By slowing down, a driver gains more time to correct for driving errors (such as the tendency to swerve while texting). Speed variance was also greater for texting drivers than for non-texting drivers.
  • The fact that the study was conducted in an actual driving environment is important, the researchers say. While simulators are useful, the dynamics of an actual vehicle are different, and some driver cues can’t be replicated in a simulator. By using a closed course, researchers can create an environment similar to real-world driving conditions while providing a high degree of safety for the participants.

“Most research on texting and driving has been limited to driving simulators. This study involved participants driving an actual vehicle,” Ms. Yager says. “So one of the more important things we know now that we didn’t know before is that response times are even slower than we previously thought.”

The total distance covered by each driver in the study was slightly less than 11 miles. In the interest of safety for both participants and the research staff, researchers minimized the complexity of the driving task, using a straight-line course that contained no hills, traffic or potential conflicts other than the construction zone barrels. Consequently, the driving demands that participants encountered were considerably lower than those they would encounter under real-world conditions.

It is frightening, the researchers wrote, to think of how much more poorly our participants may have performed if the driving conditions were more consistent with routine driving.

Federal statistics suggest that distracted driving contributes to as much as 20% of all fatal crashes, and that cellphones constitute the primary source of driver distraction. Researchers point to two numbers to illustrate the magnitude of the texting while driving problem—an estimated 5 billion text messages are sent each day in the United States, and at least 20% of all drivers have admitted to texting while driving.

You can read the full report, and view a video at tti.tamu.edu. where you can also find Ms. Yager’s previous texting and driving study.

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