Studies show hands-free in-car systems are riskier than drivers realize

Many drivers think voice-activated in-vehicle systems are safe, but research shows that these systems can still cause significant and lasting distraction.

In recent years, the dangers of using a cell phone while driving have become apparent to most Seattle residents. However, many of the same people still believe that voice-activated in-car systems offer a safe alternative to cell phones. In theory, these systems reduce driver inattention by eliminating manual and visual distraction. Unfortunately, though, research increasingly indicates that these systems are still distracting and may greatly raise the risk of serious or deadly car crashes.

Dangerously distracting

Last year, a study of six voice-based in-vehicle systems and two hands-free apps found that the majority caused significant driver distraction. According to Fox News, researchers observed the participants as they drove, did simulations and completed tests while using the systems. They found that both of the apps and four of the six systems created greater levels of distraction than a hands-free cellphone call.

This is especially worrisome because past research has shown that hands-free and handheld cellphones create comparable levels of distraction. According to the National Safety Council, drivers who are distracted with either type of cell phone show various handicaps. These include blindness to surrounding stimuli, delayed responses and reduced activity in the part of the brain used during driving. Presumably, voice-activated systems cause similar forms of impairment.

Another observational study conducted this year reveals that the distraction associated with in-car systems can linger. CBS News states that some participants in this study were distracted for as long as 27 seconds after using these systems. These drivers, who were only traveling at speeds of 25 mph, covered the length of three football fields before shifting their attention to the road. At higher speeds, this prolonged distraction could be even more dangerous.

Exacerbating factors

There are several variables that may make voice-activated in-car systems especially dangerous to drivers at this point. According to Fox News, these include:

  • Ignorance of the risk. Automakers advertise these systems as safe, and many drivers think the systems wouldn't be built into vehicles if this weren't true. However, research shows that these systems still create significant levels of distraction.
  • Lack of oversight. There are currently no safety or performance standards that voice-based in-vehicle systems must meet. The level of attention that these systems require, and the associated risk of motor vehicle accidents, may vary markedly between vehicles.
  • Technological limitations. Systems that make errors or require extra attention cause the highest levels of distraction. Until these systems are improved, they may demand too much focus from drivers.

All of these issues may be effectively addressed in the future. Unfortunately, at present, many drivers who think they are engaging in a relatively safe behavior may be endangering themselves and others.

Pursuing recourse

Under current state laws, drivers in Washington are allowed to use hands-free cell phones and in-car systems. However, people who cause accidents while distracted with these devices may still be considered negligent. As a result, legal recourse may be available to the victims of these accidents. For further information, victims may want to consider discussing the situation with an auto accident attorney.