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Voice-operated car gadgets can be risky, study shows

By JOAN LOWY Published: June 13, 2013

Dashboard technology that lets drivers text and email with voice commands — marketed as a safer alternative — actually is more distracting than simply talking on a cellphone, a new AAA study found.

Automakers have been trying to excite new-car buyers, especially younger ones, with dashboard infotainment systems that let drivers use voice commands to do things like turning on wipers, posting Facebook messages or ordering pizza. The pitch has been that hands-free devices keep hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

But talking on a hands-free phone isn't significantly safer for drivers than talking on a hand-held phone, and using hands-free devices that translate speech into text is the most distracting of all, researchers reported in a study released Wednesday.

Speech-to-text systems that enable drivers to send, read, or delete email and text messages required greater concentration by drivers than other activities examined in the study, such as talking on the phone or to a passenger, or listening to music.

The greater the concentration required to perform a task, the more likely a driver is to develop what researchers call “tunnel vision” or “inattention blindness.” Drivers will stop scanning the roadway or ignore their side and rearview mirrors. Instead, they look straight ahead, but fail to see what's in front of them, like red lights and pedestrians.

“That's the scariest part to me,” said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

About 9 million cars and trucks on the road have infotainment systems, with about 62 million of them expected by 2018, AAA spokeswoman Yolanda Cade said. AAA officials said they want to limit in-vehicle, voice-driven technologies to “core driving tasks.” The National Safety Council, responding to the study, also called on industry and policymakers to reconsider the inclusion of such technology in vehicles.

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