If you get frustrated when you see a driver with a phone pressed to her ear and consider your Bluetooth phone habits to be superior, you won’t like this story. Researchers looked at how long a driver's focus was interrupted when using hands-free, or voice activated technology to perform a common task. Tasks studied included changing the music playing on the audio system (we won’t call that a “radio-station” anymore). The study's conclusion was that the distraction is much more significant than one might assume. Less surprising is that dialling a new number on the hands-free phone system, sending a text, or using voice commands in other ways also cause cognitive distraction in drivers.
The study looked at a wide variety of different vehicles and scored them on a 1 to 5 scale for distraction with one being mild, and five being severe distraction. Interestingly, there was a wide range of distraction between the different vehicles' technology. For example, a Chevy Equinox scored a 2.4 overall, and a Mazda6 scored 4.6 for distraction. Aftermarket systems like Google Now (3.0), Apple’s Siri (3.4), and Microsoft Cortana (3.8) also have a disparity in distraction scoring.
AAA likes to calculate the length of roadway a distraction period can occur. It found that a driver in a vehicle going 25 MPH can be distracted when using hands-free technology for as much as 900 feet. The vehicle travelled about 350 feet while drivers executed the least distracting hands-free tasks.
Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety commented on the study saying, “The lasting effects of mental distraction pose a hidden and pervasive danger that would likely come as a surprise to most drivers. The results indicate that motorists could miss stop signs, pedestrians and other vehicles while the mind is readjusting to the task of driving.”