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AAA study: hands-free texting still hazardous behind the wheel

A recent study by the American Automobile Association (AAA) proves what some safety advocates and watchdog groups have been saying all along: it is no safer to use hands-free technology to text and send emails behind the wheel than it is to do them by hand. The study examined driver reaction times, brainwaves, eye movement and other behaviors of people behind the wheel while performing a variety of "secondary tasks" like using hands-free/dictated texting, handheld texting, while talking on a mobile phone, listening to music (or audiobooks), while interacting with passengers and while only focusing on driving. 

The research showed that the level of distraction from hands-free and handheld texting/e-mailing was remarkably similar, something that has concerned legislators, automakers, technology companies and safety experts alike, since hands-free technology has been touted for the past several years as being a much safer alternative to using hand-held devices while driving. The level of distraction for other tasks, like having a conversation with a passenger, listening to music or listening to audiobooks was much lower than those that involved a handheld or hands-free device. 

In fact, the study shows that perhaps the most distracting thing drivers can do behind the wheel is to use hands-free technology to compose texts and emails, since concentration on that task pulls vital brain resources away from the task at hand - driving - and can even lead to something called "inattention blindness" where drivers fail to notice traffic conditions around them and have car accidents as a result. 

This study has given AAA spokeswoman Yolanda Cade pause to talk about a related issue that some people have not connected, the trend of integrated "info-tainment" systems in new vehicles. An estimated 62 million vehicles will have such systems by 2018, and overdependence on them could lead to a new distracted driving crisis. As automakers are quick to point out, though, the type of task that a driver is trying to perform behind the wheel is key: instructing the car to turn on the headlights will be much less distracting than trying to compose a multi-line email while still focusing on the roadway. 

Source: Fox 31 ( "Hands-free texting still dangerous while driving," Joan Lowy, June 12, 2013.