News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 11, 2013

EDITORIAL: Driven to distraction

Hands-free systems may not be solution to safety issues


The Tribune-Star

---- — Everyone knows that texting while driving is a distracting and a dangerous practice. Same goes for reading or writing email.

What you may not know is that there is new evidence to suggest that alternatives such as hands-free, voice-recognition systems to perform similar tasks while driving are no safer.

In fact, using voice commands to send text messages and emails from behind the wheel actually is more distracting and dangerous than simply talking on a cell phone, according to AAA study.

In a story published recently by the Associated Press, the AAA study found that talking on a hands-free phone isn’t significantly safer for drivers than talking on a hand-held phone, and using hands-free devices that translate speech into text is the most distracting of all.

What’s more, speech-to-text systems that enable drivers to send, scroll through, or delete email and text messages required greater concentration by drivers than other potentially distracting activities examined in the study like talking on the phone, talking to a passenger, listening to a book on tape or listening to the radio.

The significance of the study is that its conclusions contrast greatly with how these hands-free systems are being marketed to potential vehicle owners by automakers. They are billed as a safer alternative, which may give drivers, especially teenagers, a false sense of security.

The AAA researchers who conducted the study believe there is a public safety crisis looming as more vehicles with these voice-recognition, “infotainment” systems become more prevalent in vehicles. They hope their study will begin to reverse the safety misconceptions held by motorists.

It’s a discussion that needs to happen. Other agencies such as the National Transportation Safety Board have indicated they believe hands-free systems are safer, but we hope they take another look at conflicting research.

Our highways are dangerous enough without contributing to safety problems by not giving motorists all the facts. We need alert, attentive drivers on the road. Distractions abound. And hands-free communications systems may not be the answer to reducing them.