Voice controls could be worse for our attention

While there are a lot of new features being added to our vehicles in the next few years that should help keep us safer on the road, whether it’s automatic braking, lane assist technology or even the foam bumpers of a Google pod car, there’s also some other little tech coming to our info-tainment hardware that could help too. However voice controls, as much as they keep our hands free, could potentially be more distracting than initially thought, if a new study released in the US is to be believed.

The American Automobile Association Foundation of Traffic Safety at the University of Utah performed the study and found that while fully functioning, receptive and easy to use voice controls were better than people texting or talking on their phones while driving (something that’s not illegal in all US states, as it is in the UK and elsewhere) but that if the technology was problematic, didn’t function right or produced errors, it often led to drivers becoming frustrated and therefore erratic and distracted at the wheel.

“We already know that drivers can miss stop signs, pedestrians and other cars while using voice technologies because their minds are not fully focused on the road ahead,” said Bob Darbelnet, the AAA’s chief executive officer (via Telegraph).

“We now understand that current shortcomings in these products, intended as safety features, may unintentionally cause greater levels of cognitive distraction.”


No handsfree kit is a magic bullet. Source: TomTom

This study was conducted with some 162 students, who between them use a variety of different smartphones, vehicles and in-car technology. Ultimately it was found that while for the most part hands free technology was safer for them to use while driving, it was far from perfect and in some cases, it was even worse than a person picking up their handset and taking their eyes off of the road for a second to use it.

“Technologies used in the car that rely on voice communications may have unintended consequences that adversely affect road safety,” added Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

“The level of distraction and the impact on safety can vary tremendously based on the task or the system the driver is using.”

Some of the worst instances of driver distraction came when they were attempting to dictate a text message to a friend or family member, because on top of having to spell it out several times to a problematic piece of software, they were then having to focus and listen in to what the software was saying as it read it back to them.

Of course, for most situations and with most hands free kits, the worst thing you can do is look down at your phone in order to text someone while driving. It’s much more dangerous. However, this research shows that just installing a hands free kit isn’t enough. You need to still pay attention and pick your moments to use it.


    Shaun Flanagan

    Shaun has been contributing to motoring and technology sites in various sectors for many years. He has a keen interest in anything automotive and many contacts across the industry, which helps feed his appetite for the latest news and views.

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