Though some drivers opt to use “hands free” or “Bluetooth” technologies for safety reasons, there are some sobering findings regarding their actual safety. In a recent AAA-commissioned study by a University of Utah research team, they found that a majority of these devices may be doing more harm than good.

The proliferation of hands-free technology “is a looming public safety crisis,” AAA CEO Robert Darbelnet says. “It’s time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars.”

University of Utah psychology professor and his team tracked their subjects’ eye and head movements, charted brain activity and measured driver reaction time in simulators and on the road. In the car and simulators, the students listened to the car radio, talked on a cellphone (both handheld and hands-free), as well as responded to voice-activated email features.

Strayer’s crew further found that voice-activated features “increased mental workload and distraction levels” and ultimately heightened risk. These test drivers experienced a “type of tunnel vision or inattention blindness where motorists don’t see the potential hazards right in front of them.”

The researchers had subjects first perform a series of eight tasks, ranging from nothing at all to usage of various electronic devices to something called OSPAN, or operation span, which sets the maximum demand the average adult brain can handle. For the OSPAN, the researchers gave subjects words and math problems to recall later, in the same order, as a way to “anchor the high end of the cognitive distraction scale developed by the research team,” according to AAA’s Jake Nelson.

The AAA study also found that greater “cognitive workloads” slow drivers’ reactions to events like a ball rolling in front of the car and a kid running out to catch it. (Reaction times were measured with the simulator, not the instrumented vehicle driving on real streets.)

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has stated that they would prefer to wait for further studies to be conducted to develop a definitive answer regarding this issue.

“We will need to review the AAA/University of Utah study, but we are extremely concerned that it could send a misleading message since it suggests that hand-held and hands-free devices are equally risky,” Newton says. “The AAA study focuses only on the cognitive aspects of using a device, and ignores the visual and manual aspects of hand-held versus integrated hands-free systems.”

The fact that distracted driving killed 3,331 people on American streets in 2011 is worrisome enough, but since companies like AAA, Utah University, and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers are looking into this matter surely more substantial information will arise.

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