Hands-free texting while driving results in 'extensive risk,' new U. study finds

Published: Wednesday, June 12 2013 4:00 a.m. MDT

Research assistant Sammie Sherwood drives in a simulator at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Tuesday to study distracted driving.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Smartphone technology allows drivers to write emails and texts, or post to sites like Facebook and Twitter, without taking their eyes off the road.

But a new study by the University of Utah suggests that using hands-free devices to talk, text and email increases a driver's mental workload, causing them to scan the road less and potentially miss seeing objects directly in front of them like signs or pedestrians.

"Just because it's hands-free doesn't mean it's risk-free," said University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer, the lead author of the study. "Just because your car might support posting to Facebook while you're driving, it may not be a good idea."

The study, released today and sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, used a driving simulator on campus and an instrument vehicle in residential Salt Lake City to measure a driver's brainwaves, eye movement and other metrics as they attempted to perform multiple tasks at once.

Thirty-two individuals from the University of Utah, including 22 men and 10 women, participated in the study. They ranged from ages 19 to 36 and all participants reported that they owned a cellphone and used it regularly while driving.

Researchers found that listening to the radio or an audiobook resulted in the lowest level of distraction or minimal risk. Talking on a cellphone, either hand-held or hands-free, resulted in moderate risk.

But listening and responding to an in-vehicle, voice-activated email or text program increased the mental workload of a driver and resulted in a distraction level of extensive risk.

"The mental distraction is pretty substantial," Strayer said.

For the simulator testing, participants were given driving tasks to perform while talking on their cellphone with a friend or using voice-activated programs to send and edit messages.

Sammie Sherwood, a U. senior studying psychology and sociology who participated in the study, said the simulator is a realistic representation of on-the-street driving. She admitted to using her phone in the car "once or twice a day" but said that working on the study made her realize how distracted she can become while driving.

"Especially with the cellphone, I tend to get distracted," she said. "I get a little into the conversation and kind of forget about the driving task."

She said the study has also made her more aware of people using their phones in cars next to hers, which she said is a regular sight on Utah's roads.

"Utah drivers, sometimes, are a little crazy," she said. "On the freeways here, especially in rush hour, you'll see people on phones all the time and they tend to be the ones darting in and out of traffic and cutting people off."

The release of the study follows Monday's presentation by Apple of a new operations system for the company's computers and cellphones. Apple's presentation included an upgraded and expanded version of its Siri software, which allows users to write and send messages and perform other tasks through a series of voice prompts.

Automobile manufacturers have also increasingly worked to integrate on-board computing systems with smartphone technology, offering drivers more opportunity to use their devices without removing their hands from a steering wheel.

AAA officials predict a fivefold increase in these types of "infotainment" systems in new vehicles by the year 2018 and are pointing to the results of the U. study as evidence that regulatory action is needed.

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