Researchers from AAA discovered the residual effects of mental distraction while studying hands-free technologies offered in ten vehicles. The national organization said the results raised "new and unexpected concerns" about the proliferation of these hands-free features in new cars.
"The lasting effects of mental distractions pose a hidden and pervasive danger that would likely come as a surprise to most drivers," said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety. "Motorists could miss stop signs, pedestrians and other vehicles while the mind is readjusting to the task of driving."
Not all these hands-free systems are created equal. AAA researchers found the level of cognitive distraction can vary widely by make and model. The Chevy Equinox was equipped with the least-distracting voice-activated system tested. It cognitively distracted drivers for 15 seconds. The worst-performing system, on the Mazda6, limited cognitive abilities for as long as 27 seconds. At 25 miles per hour, a driver could nearly travel the length of three football fields during this time.
"If it was just in the hand, we would have outlawed stick-shift cars a long time ago."
Following the Equinox, the Buick LaCrosse and Toyota 4Runner had the lowest levels of distraction. But don't equate lowest measured levels with lower risk. AAA found all 10 systems tested exceeded the threshold set by researchers to be potentially dangerous.
"The massive increase in voice-activated technologies in cars and phones represents a growing safety problem for drivers," said Marshall Doney, AAA's president and CEO. "We are concerned that these new systems may invite driver distraction."
The Mazda6 ranked far ahead of the pack in terms of its distraction levels, with the Hyundai Sonata and Chrysler 200 following among the cars with the greater threat. Researchers rated mental distractions on a five-point scale, with one being a "mild" distraction and four being a "very high" distraction. Among phone systems, Apple's Siri ranked in the middle of the pack with a score of 3.4 on the five-point scale. Chief competitor Google Now was the least-distracting phone system, with a score of 3.0.
A total of 257 drivers ages 21 to 70 participated in the study of 2015 model-year vehicles, while 65 additional drivers ages 21 to 68 tested three phone systems. Professors at the University of Utah conducted the study, which is the third in a series of studies AAA is doing to study cognitive distractions behind the wheel.
Automakers market these hands-free systems for making phone calls, using voice-to-text systems and other tasks as safer alternatives to glancing downward at handheld devices or center consoles. So it's a surprise to many motorists to learn the distractions aren't just visual. In a recent survey, 80 percent of Americans told the National Safety Council they believed hands-free driving is safer than using a handheld device behind the wheel. Seventy percent of respondents said the reason they used hands-free devices was for safety, and 53 percent believed hands-free must be safe if it's built into a vehicle.
"So the public is confused and getting mixed messages on handheld versus hands free," said Deborah Hersman, president and CEO at the NSC. "It's about cognitive distraction. If it was just in the hand, we would have outlawed stick-shift cars a long time ago."