Distraction study looks at mental workload for drivers

A study on cognitive distraction shows that voice-activated technology in vehicles carry the highest mental workload for drivers.

Many new cars that are on the market in Schuylkill County feature technology designed to help people lower their risk of getting into a car accident. This technology includes rear bumper cameras; automated parking; and voice-activated devices which allow drivers to search for music, make a phone call, send a text or find a new restaurant. However, a distraction study reveals that these devices may not be as safe as they are purported to be.

The tests

Researchers from the American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety ran a series of tests on drivers. The tests were conducted using a laboratory, a special instrumented vehicle and a driving simulator. Drivers were recruited from a university and admitted to using their cellphones while driving. They were then put into each of these environments and asked to do different tasks. The tasks included the following:

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

The researchers also asked the drivers to solve a set of highly complex problems and then tested them doing nothing but focusing on driving skills. Drivers were outfitted with sensors to capture data concerning their mental workload and cameras were installed in the vehicle and other environments to record their behaviors.

The cognitive scale

Information collected from the tests was then organized into a cognitive distraction rating scale. At the bottom of the scale was the mental workload for the single task of driving and at the top was the mental workload for the complex problem task. Between those two points were then rated the distractive behaviors.

Listening to the radio was the least mentally distracting to drivers at 1.21 on the scale. The highest mentally distracting task, surprisingly, was the speech-to-text system at 3.06. Coming in at a distant second was the handheld cellphone at 2.45 and then talking to a passenger rated third at 2.33.

Questioning the safety of voice technology

While the voice technology allowed drivers to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the steering wheel, it still interfered with their driving skills. Drivers who were using this device were slower to hit the brakes in an unexpected situation. They also visually scanned their driving environment less often and missed cues of potentially dangerous conditions.

The researchers voiced concern over the growing popularity of voice-activated technology but tech companies and car makers argue that the study had flaws in the methods used. Their argument was that drivers were driving a vehicle they were not familiar with while the study information indicates that drivers were given time to get used to the vehicle.

Distracted driving in Pennsylvania

During the 2014 year, 49 fatal crashes were caused by drivers who were distracted, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Additionally, distraction was cited as a contributing factor in more than 13,000 accidents across the state. The majority of those accidents were caused by drivers who were 16-21 years old as well as drivers between the ages of 65-74.

Pennsylvanians who are the victims of car accidents face numerous challenges. To understand what their rights are, they may want to make an appointment with an experienced attorney.