AAA Blasts Automakers for Enabling Distracted Driving

With three out of four drivers believing hands-free technology is safe to use because of auto and cell phone company propaganda as well as denial, the distracted driving problem grows each year.

The largest motoring organization in North America, AAA, is saying that hands-free technology now in widespread vehicle use is not safe and contributes to the Distracted Driving epidemic because of the cognitive distraction it causes. While 47 states have banned texting, it turns out that cellphone use is the equivalent of drunken driving.

AAA “encourages drivers to minimize cognitive distraction” by limiting the use of most voice-based technologies.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a non-profit group that comes from AAA motoring clubs, which have 54 million members, funded the latest research, dubbed Cognitive Distraction Phase II Report. The University of Utah conducted the research.

The results, which build on the Foundation’s research of last year, say that developers can improve the safety of their products by making them less complicated, more accurate and generally easier to use. AAA says it will attempt to work with manufacturers to make hands-free technologies as safe as possible for consumers.

“Some companies are doing better – not perfect, but better than others,” Nancy White of AAA told AutoInformed. “Who knows if we can get to perfect? But just because you can do something such as using your cell phone will driving doesn’t mean you should do it.”

The problem is well known to safety researchers where drivers – 50% to 75% of them admit to unsafe behaviors in the past 30 days, but think it is the other person who is the problem, not them.

AAA appears to be powerless to change its member’s bad behaviors, lacking regulatory authority. Politicians, automakers and cell phone providers are afraid to take the problem on for self-interested and craven reasons. However, AAA has a healthy auto insurance business, controlled by AAA state clubs – because of the way insurance regulations are written – and could use rates to force the issue. This is also a political dilemma for AAA, though. Therefore, AAA is investing in research and attempting to raise public awareness of the deadly problem.

With three out of four drivers now believing that hands-free technology is safe to use, because of automaker and cell phone company propaganda and self-denial, the distracted driving problem grows each year. It is according to the NHTSA and the National Safety Council, among other groups, a public health crisis.

At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving. It’s claimed that 3,328 drivers were killed in 2012. An estimated 421,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver, a 9% increase from the estimated 387,000 people injured in 2011.

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

Using instrumented test vehicles, heart-rate monitors and other equipment designed to measure reaction times, Dr. David Strayer and researchers from the University of Utah evaluated and ranked common voice-activated interactions based on the level of cognitive distraction generated. They used a five-category rating system, which they created in 2013, similar to that used for hurricanes. Category 1, for example listening to the radio, is the most benign.

The results are:

  • The accuracy of voice recognition software significantly influences the rate of distraction. Systems with low accuracy and reliability generated a high level (category 3) of distraction.
  • Composing text messages and emails using in-vehicle technologies (category 3) was more distracting than using these systems to listen to messages (category 2).
  • The quality of the systems’ voice had no impact on distraction levels – listening to a natural or synthetic voice both rated as a category 2 level of distraction.

The study also assessed Apple’s Siri (version iOS 7) using data obtained from Apple about Siri’s functionality at the time the research was conducted. Researchers used the same metrics to measure a broader range of tasks including using social media, sending texts and updating calendars. The research uncovered that hands- and eyes-free use of Apple’s Siri generated a relatively high category 4 level of mental distraction.

To assess “real-world” impact, Dr. Joel Cooper with Precision Driving Research evaluated the two most common voice-based interactions in which drivers engage – changing radio stations and voice dialing – with the actual voice-activated systems found in six different automakers’ vehicles. On the five point scale, Toyota’s Entune system garnered the lowest cognitive distraction ranking (at 1.7), which is similar to listening to an audio book. In comparison, the Chevrolet MyLink resulted in a high level of cognitive distraction (rating of 3.7). Other systems tested included the Hyundai Blue Link (rating 2.2), the Chrysler Uconnect (rating 2.7), Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch (rating 3.0) and the Mercedes COMAND (rating 3.1).

AAA is calling for developers to address key contributing factors to mental distraction including complexity, accuracy and time on task to make systems that are no more demanding than listening to the radio or an audiobook. AAA also plans to use the findings to continue a dialogue with policy makers, safety advocates and manufacturers.

About Ken Zino

Ken Zino is an auto industry veteran with global experience in print, broadcast and electronic media. He has auto testing, marketing, public relations and communications expertise garnered while working in Asia, Europe and the U.S.
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