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Hands-Free Conversations with Siri More Dangerous Than Texting

Thousands of deaths each year are due to cell phone-related crashes, according to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

Distracted driving is now ranked as dangerous as alcohol use and speeding in causing fatal and serious injury crashes, according to the National Safety Council.

In 2010, an estimated 160,000 crashes involved texting or emailing with a handheld device. In the same year, more than one million crashes involved talking on a cell phone, according to the NSC. With more than  275 million cell phone subscribers and 81 percent of drivers admitting to talking on the cell phone while driving, the risks of a crash when using a cell phone while driving increases four-fold.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety defines distracted driving  as the “diversion of attention away from activities critical for safe driving…”

Since the late 1990s cell phone use has increased dramatically. Only 14 percent of the U.S. population had a cell phone subscription in 1996. But by 2011, there were more cell phone subscriptions than people in the US, according to the NSC.

[sws_pullquote_right]Sending or receiving a text message takes a driver’s eyes off the road for almost 5 seconds, yet the use of a hands-free device is more distracting than typing texts by hand. [/sws_pullquote_right]

Texting while driving has become a national concern prompting 44 states to ban text messaging while driving and many states placing a ban on hand-held use of cell phones while driving. According to the official government site for distracted driving, 15 states now prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving.

Hands-free devices worse than texting

Unfortunately, the use of hands-free devices is not making the streets in your community any safer. Measuring the effect of hands-free electronic device use on driver cognitive impairment, the AAA study found that voice-activated features requiring drivers' auditory and vocal interaction with a devices lead to high levels of cognitive distraction, even though drivers kept their eyes on the road and both hands on the steering wheel.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), sending or receiving a text message takes a driver’s eyes off the road for almost 5 seconds, yet the use of a hands-free device is more distracting than typing texts by hand.

Measuring the effects of various hands-free interactions while driving, the driver interactions with Siri presented the highest cognitive distraction, ranking fourth on a five point scale, according to the AAA study.

Source: AAA

Hands-free is not risk free

The study showed that the cognitive impairments were associated with the allocation of the driver’s attention to the task of interacting with Siri. When drivers are required to devote their attention to another task, even if their eyes remain on the road and their hands remain on the steering wheel, they are limited in their ability to give attention to the primary task at hand, driving.

According to the NSC, distracted drivers using hands-free devices suffer from inattention blindness, delayed response and reaction times, and problems staying in their lane.

Inattention blindness is when drivers using hands-free devices and are looking at the road, but “fail to see up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment."

  • Distracted drivers tend to miss visual cues such as exits, red lights and stop signs.
  • Driver reaction and response time become delayed as they are required to “attention switch,” causing a delay in a driver's braking reaction time.
  • Driver reaction time with use of a hands-free device is slower than the reaction time of driver impaired at a .08 alcohol intoxication concentration, according to the NSC.

When a driver’s visual perception attention and response time is delayed, this affects their ability to keep track of the vehicle placement within a driving lane. According to the AAA study, any secondary task diverting a driver’s attention away from driving disrupts their visual scanning abilities, leading to extremely dangerous driving impairments.

Deadly distractions

Each day in the United States, nine people are killed in crashes that involve a distracted driver. A 16-year old boy was pinned under a distracted driver’s SUV causing broken bones and internal injuries in Utah on October 30, 2014. The driver swerved right, running the boy over and crashing into a residential fence and backyard, nearly missing the home. The boy was pinned under the car for several minutes before firefighters propped the vehicle up to rescue the boy from underneath the SUV.

In Nebraska a 75-year-old man was killed when his tractor was struck by a teen driver merely reaching for her cell phone.

At any given moment during daylight hours on the road, an estimated 660,000 drivers are using electronic devices while driving, according to the National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS). Hands-free options, such as Siri, are meant to allow drivers to keep their eyes and hands on the task of driving, yet they cause more distraction and frustration than back seat drivers.

Participants in the AAA study reported frustration with Siri’s occasional sarcasm and wit. A backseat driver, or an additional person in the car talking to the driver is not as distracting as Siri or other hands-free methods, because a passenger is another set of eyes with the ability to point out hazards, or stop talking when driving conditions are challenging for the driver.

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