Study Seeks to Broaden Definition of Distracted Driving

Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Even as consumer groups and public awareness campaigns have worked to raise awareness of distracted driving here in Oregon and elsewhere, the distractions in our cars have evolved.

That conclusion comes from a study released today by researchers at the University of Utah and reported in the Salt Lake City Tribune. As the newspaper reports, the study concludes that “these latest ‘infotainment’ features may be more fun than safe… (and) talking to your car while driving may be more distracting than chatting on a cellphone.”
According to the Tribune, the study involved monitoring the brainwaves of volunteers as they attempted a series of tasks “ranging from listening to the radio to solving a math problem to operating a speech-to-text device while staring at a cross on a blank computer screen.” Later stages of the study involved asking the same volunteers to perform the same tasks in both an auto simulator and while driving a real car. The results challenge the idea that in-car distractions are not a big problem so long as the driver can keep his or her hands on the steering wheel.

As the paper notes: “The results were clear in all three tests: Those hands-free speech-to-text devices were much more distracting than you might think. In fact, they’re worse than talking on a cellphone.” The study was sponsored by AAA. The group released a statement to accompany its publication citing the research and expressing concern at the proliferation of interactive high-tech devices in our cars. A spokesman for the group is quoted calling for “loud enough and persistent enough” public education programs to shift attitudes.

As a Portland distracted driving lawyer these conclusions confirm what I, and many other observers, have long suspected. The widespread focus on cellphones, texting and the programs to encourage or require hands-free phone use by drivers here in Oregon and elsewhere is good, and it ought to continue by all means. We cannot, however, let it blind us to the dangers that the ever-growing number of other electronic devices pose for drivers trying to keep their attention on the road. Indeed, the new generation of devices which are built into the car itself are in some ways more troubling than cellphones. Because they are part of the vehicle itself they are often more difficult to disable entirely. One’s cellphone, at least, can simply be shut off (ultimately, the best tool against Oregon distracted driving), but navigational aides, complicated radios and entertainment systems represent something new entirely – a demand on our attention that is often especially difficult to shut out even as it poses a uniquely serious threat not only to the individual driving the car but, through him, to everyone else on the road.

The Salt Lake City Tribune: Utah researcher: Car voice commands more distracting than mobile phones