Are in-vehicle hands-free systems really safe for drivers?

New study assesses the cognitive workload of several vehicles’ voice systems to see whether hands-free is safer.

In an effort to lower car accidents caused by distracted driving, car manufacturers have introduced hands-free systems in new cars that are activated solely by voice. Many New Yorkers have seen ads that market these systems as safer to use than handheld cellphones and allow drivers the ability to turn their vehicle into a mobile office. However, are they really safe and helpful in avoiding serious auto accidents?

Assessing voice activated systems

The American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety recently conducted a study that examined the effects of distracted driving. The first phase of the study revealed that the activity which caused the highest level of mental distraction to drivers was the use of voice-text systems in vehicles. Deciding to study in-vehicle systems further, the second phase assessed six systems from different carmakers. These were Toyota's Entune, MyFord Touch, Chevrolet's MyLink, Mercedes' COMAND, Chrysler's Uconnect and Hyundai's Blue Link Telematics System.

Participants drove through a residential neighborhood while engaging in a series of tasks using these systems. Sensors and cameras measured the drivers' behaviors, heart rate, reaction times and subjective assessments to determine their mental workload. Drivers were given time to familiarize themselves with the vehicles and the course before they were officially tested. Each driver was paired with an experimenter who asked the driver to solve a mathematical question between tasks. This gave the researchers a mental task load to compare the use of the in-vehicle systems against.

Mental workload results

When researchers compiled the data, they discovered that Chevy's system had the highest level of mental workload, matching it with the cognitive distraction level of the voice-text system from the first phase of the study. Ford and Mercedes were the second and third highest in creating workload for the driver. The safest system overall was Toyota's Entune, which ranked around the same level as someone who was listening to an audio book or the radio. Hyundai's system was the second safest with Chrysler taking the third spot.

Not surprising, the same systems ranked the same when it came to completion time to complete a task. Toyota's system was the fastest overall while Chevy's was the slowest. Researchers noted that the amount of time required for a task does seem to have an impact on how mentally distracting the task is. Chevy also ranked highest in errors on music tasks while Mercedes' system ranked highest in errors during calling tasks.

Distraction is everywhere

While Toyota's system was deemed the least distracting for drivers, people in New York should be aware of all sources of distraction around them. These may include watching something outside the car, grooming, eating and drinking, smoking, talking to passengers and pets. An accident caused by distraction can lead to serious injuries. Therefore, victims may find it helpful to meet with an experienced attorney.