While the automotive industry is doing its best to promote the "hands-free" mantra as the solution to the potential hazards of distracted driving, a new scientific study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety takes serious issue with that contention. The research, performed by cognitive distraction expert Dr. David Strayer and his team at the University of Utah, is the most comprehensive of its kind done to date. Its results indicate that "dangerous mental distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road." While that may sound counterintuitive, Strayer and his team found that whenever mental workload and distractions of any kind increase, brain functions are tangibly compromised and driver's tend to scan the road less and react more slowly to what they do see, including things like stop signs and pedestrians or cyclists.

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To build their database, Strayer's researchers used an array of sophisticated testing equipment that included in-vehicle cameras to track eye/head movements, a Detection-Response-Task device that recorded driver reaction time in response to triggers of red and green lights that would appear in their field of vision and a special electroencephalographic (EEG)-configured skull cap that charted participants' brain activity so that researchers could determine the effective mental workload they were being subjected to.

Applying protocols culled from aviation psychology and other established performance metrics, the team ranked the levels of mental distraction the subjects encountered while performing various activities into three levels. They found that level 1 tasks like listening to the radio posed only minimal risk and that talking on a cell phone -- whether hand-held or hands-free -- produced a level 2 or moderate risk. However, listening to or responding to in-vehicle voice-activated e-mail was a different matter. That activity raised the mental workload and distraction levels of the drivers to a critical level 3 rating, which is categorized as presenting far more extensive risk.

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"These findings reinforce previous research that hands-free is not risk-free," said AAA Foundation President and CEO Peter Kissinger. "Increased mental workload and cognitive distractions can lead to a type of tunnel vision or inattention blindness where motorists don't see potential hazards right in front of them."

To help prevent what it perceives as a looming public safety crisis, AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet is calling for a measured rethinking of the entire issue, noting: "It's time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free." To that end, AAA is proposing the automotive and electronics industries work with it to explore restricting the use of voice-activated technologies to core driving-related activities (climate control, cruise control, etc.) and completely disabling certain actions like voice-to-text technologies. It's also encouraging a wide-ranging effort to educate drivers and owners of mobile devices about the potential dangers and responsible usage of any in-vehicle technology.

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