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Mental distraction study raises questions over voice-activated systems

A recent study shows that in-vehicle systems actually cause the highest levels of cognitive distraction.

People who drive in the Chicago area are only too well aware of the many risks that they face. Speeding, texting, tailgating, inebriation and road rage can leave innocent victims seriously injured. The Chicago Tribune reported that in December 2014, the number of people who had died that year in traffic accidents was 898. The leading causes of death were attributed to alcohol and excessive speed. Additionally, it was stated that every day, 782 crashes occur.

Taking a closer look at mental distraction

Among the many factors that contribute to car accidents is mental distraction. The American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety states that every year, more than 3,000 people die in accidents involving distracted driving. As such, the organization conducted a recent study to take a closer look at cognitive distraction. This is one of the three main driver distraction types but little research has been conducted on the subject.

Researchers recruited over a 100 participants and put them in three different environments to examine the effects of distractions on driving skills. Participants drove through a residential neighborhood in an instrumented vehicle, used a driving simulator and undertook tasks in a laboratory. Small video cameras, instrument sensors and other devices were used to capture data about the drivers' behaviors, mental workload and reaction time.

The tasks

In each environment, participants were asked to perform a specific task in addition to driving. These tasks included the following:

  • Using a voice-to-text system
  • Talking on a handheld cellphone
  • Conversing with a passenger
  • Listening to the radio
  • Talking on a hands-free cellphone
  • Listening to a book on audio

The researchers used the information to create a rating scale. To establish the highest point of mental workload, they asked the participants to solve a series of mathematical problems, which were extremely complex. For the lowest number of the scale, they recorded the participants' focus on just driving.

Surprising results

While people might expect that talking on a handheld cellphone was the task that would put drivers at the highest risk of getting into an accident, the results showed that it actually ranked No. 2. The task with the greatest mental distraction for drivers was the speech-to-text system with a rating scale of 3.06. Talking to a passenger was No. 3 and using a hands-free cellphone was No. 4.

Speech-to-text systems is a fairly new technology that has begun appearing in new cars and researchers voiced concern over motorists' increasing use of them. These systems enable drivers to get directions, send emails, make phone calls and even look up music. However, researchers found that drivers engaged with these systems were slower to hit their brakes and scanned their driving environment less often, which could put them at a higher risk of getting into a collision.

Often, people in Illinois are unprepared when a car accident occurs, leaving them to deal with the stress of added financial costs and an uncertain future. However, they may find it beneficial to discuss their concerns with a knowledgeable personal injury attorney.

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