With Siri on the iPhone and Bluetooth in dashboards, it's a lot easier
for drivers to talk or text on their cellphones -- but a study released
Wednesday found these hands-free technologies could be even more dangerous than
hand-held devices when used on the road.
The study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety measured drivers' brainwaves while they were multitasking and found they had to cope with a heavier "mental workload" and distractions when using voice-to-text email features compared to talking on a cellphone, whether hand-held or hands-free.
The study found voice-to-text features sometimes caused drivers to have "a kind of tunnel vision" or -- even more problematic -- "inattention blindness," Automobile Club of Southern California senior research associate Steve Bloch said.
With the former, he explained, drivers "see what's right in front of them, but don't see stop signs, traffic lights, people on the side of the road who might enter the road."
With the latter, drivers "don't even see what's right in front of them, because they're so lost in their own thoughts, so cognitively distracted," he added.
Bloch, who did not participate directly in the study, said the notion that hands-free is safer than hand-held is "just not true" and creates "a false sense of security."
But the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers expressed skepticism about the findings.
"We are extremely concerned that it could send a misleading message, since it suggests that hand-held and hands-free devices are equally risky," it said in a statement.
The trade group said the study focused only on the mental distraction posed by using a device, and ignored the visual and manual aspects of hand-held cellphones versus hands-free systems integrated into cars.
With a growing number of automakers allowing smartphones to interface with their vehicles so that drivers can use voice commands to turn on windshield wipers, find the nearest restaurant, send and receive text messages, set appointments, and even post on Facebook, Kelly Browning is worried.
"We need to do only one thing behind the wheel, and that's driving," said the executive direct of Impact Teen Drivers, a Sacramento-based organization created to reduce teens' risk of car crashes, particularly those caused by distractions and inexperience.
"Anything that takes away from that, regardless of whether it's voice activated or not, can be lethal," she warned.
California Highway Patrol public information officer Vince Ramirez urged drivers to refrain from using their cellphones in car. After all, in most cases, it's illegal anyway.
The state banned drivers from making calls with handheld cellphones in 2008, and driving while texting in 2009.
Hands-free texting, however, is permitted as January of this year, unless you're under 18.
"Anybody under 18 is prohibited from using a cellphone or any type of electronic device whatsoever, when driving," Ramirez said.
He added most first offenses for distracted driving result in a fine of about $150. A second offense could cost about $250.
CHP hands out an average of 36,000 such citations monthly, but that's only a tiny fraction of the number of drivers using cellphones.
According to a recent study by the state Office of Traffic Safety, the
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