Why hands-free driving isn't risk-free

Steering clear of driving distractions means more than no texting, experts warn

Second of two parts.

Yes, you can have it all.

Make a dinner reservation, text your boss and update Facebook from the comfort of your car thanks to a dashboard infotainment system that rivals the Starship Enterprise's command center.

The only problem is when driving gets in the way.

Welcome to the final frontier of the distracted driving debate - cognitive distraction.

A year-old Illinois law bans driving from using hand-held phones or electronic devices, but safety advocates fear it sends the dangerous message that hands-free technology is safe.

A team of Daily Herald journalists observed more than 1,000 drivers breaking the new law in October over a single hour during a weekday morning rush. They also spotted multiple examples of hands-free calls.

“People think hands-free is risk-free, but study after study shows that's not the case,” AAA spokeswoman Beth Mosher said. This month, AAA announced that 46 percent of drivers who use speech-based systems to text or send emails don't think those features are distracting, which Mosher called disappointing. A visitor to the Chicago Auto Show might think AAA is fighting a losing battle.

A fleet of cars with souped-up center consoles offer hands-free smartphone access to apps, voice commands, dual screens and navigation systems.

Manufacturers insist driving has never been safer thanks to technology such as rearview cameras, lane-departure warnings and collision warning alerts.

But experts such as cognitive psychologist Paul Atchley caution that drivers might think they're watching the road while dictating commands or listening to texts, but an “inattention blindness” occurs that can be dangerous if road conditions change suddenly.

“You need your full attention to avoid a (crash) situation or, if it's unavoidable, you need your full attention to reduce a negative outcome,” Atchley said.

In addition to newfangled driving threats, myriad old-school ways of getting into trouble are everywhere.

Daily Herald staff members observed 1,004 people breaking the hand-held law between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014, at 10 major intersections in the suburbs.

Reporters also witnessed numerous examples of motorists behaving badly - legally. Drivers ate breakfast, applied makeup and lotion, read newspapers and magazines, held pets on their laps and used their steering wheels as desks.

Among the offenders were: a woman scarfing down cereal out of a bowl in Wheaton, a man wiping the inside of his windshield with a spray cleaner in Schaumburg and a woman painting her nails peachy-pink in Naperville.

Can these low-tech distractions be quantified?

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has conducted a number of naturalistic driving studies where cameras are placed in vehicles to record driver behavior.

Researchers found when a driver takes his or her eyes away from the road to look at or touch a cellphone, reach for the phone, dial the phone or text, it increases the risk of a crash by a ratio of 2.93, or 293 percent.

Reading and driving increases the risk of a crash by 338 percent. Eating increases the risk of a crash by 157 percent. Applying makeup increases the risk of a crash by 313 percent. And looking at a roadside object increases the risk of a crash by 370 percent, the studies found.

While some of these activities sound harmless, every second spent looking away from the road matters. A vehicle traveling at 55 mph can travel the length of a football field in 4.6 seconds, research shows.

Virginia Tech scientists did not find the same cognitive distraction risk as some of their peers.

“We did not find that talking on a hand-held or hands-free cellphone increased driver risk of a safety critical event,” professor Greg Fitch said.

That's a disconnect from findings by AAA Foundation and the National Safety Council that “talking on a cellphone, whether hand-held or hands-free, results in missed cues and slower reaction times, which would not necessarily be captured in a naturalistic study,” Mosher said.

Atchley, a University of Kansas professor, explains that there is no true multi-tasking. Instead, our brains switch from task to task so rapidly we're not aware of it.

More than 465 studies over 40 years show that “you need your brain to drive and you need your brain to talk,” Atchley said. “If you try to do both at once, you increase the risk of being in a crash.”

Recent AAA research rated cognitive distractions in cars on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 considered the highest mental load.

Listening to the radio ranked as a 1.21 cognitive distraction, a hands-free phone conversation was 2.27, a speech-to-text system was 3.06 and updating Facebook and Twitter using iPhone's Siri was 4.

Apps are nice, but screen-surfing takes a driver's eyes off the road. Cognitive distraction is a major threat to drivers who don't realize built-in infotainment systems in cars can be a safety threat. Daily Herald file photo

When systems misinterpreted verbal commands from drivers and errors occurred, driver distraction shot up. AAA found Toyota's EnTune was the lowest distraction risk at 1.7 while Chevrolet's MyLink fared worse at 3.7.

“When you use speech-to-text technology or use your car's infotainment system to find a local restaurant, not only is that not safe but driving down the road using your hands-free phone or Bluetooth carries with it some risk,” Mosher said.

Chevrolet countered with a statement that “we believe hands on the wheel and eyes on the road are critical to safe vehicle operation.”

“Chevrolet leads the industry in providing infotainment and connectivity resources.”

The Auto Alliance, a coalition of General Motors, Ford, Toyota and nine other carmakers, said the AAA's study focused just on cognitive issues. “The results actually tell us very little about the relative benefits of in-vehicle versus hand-held systems,” officials said in a statement.

The National Transportation Safety Board has called for a complete ban on hands-free devices while driving.

NTSB Board Member Walter Sumwalt cited an investigation in 2004 near Washington, D.C., where a bus driver engaged in a hands-free conversation failed to see warning signs and struck the low arch of a bridge, shearing off the roof and injuring 11 students aboard.

“People don't appreciate the impact cognitive distraction has on us. Laws coming out now that ban only hands-held devices send the wrong message,” Sumwalt said.

Other government agencies haven't gone that far, although the U.S. Department of Transportation acknowledges that hands-free conversations cause drivers to miss visual and audio cues that help avoid crashes.

The Department of Transportation also has advised automakers to craft infotainment systems that are nimble, limiting the time eyes are off the road to two seconds at a time. In addition, the agency advocates preventing video-phoning or displays of text messages and social media while the car is moving.

As to whether Illinois embraces a hands-free ban, it's doubtful, said state Rep. David Harris of Arlington Heights, who co-sponsored the hand-held law.

“Is there any momentum to ban hands-free, i.e., to undo the law we just did last year?” he said. “My sense is no, there is not.”

The law

Spot check show rampant texting, driving in suburbs

Risk rating

How Virginia Tech Transportation Institute experts quantified various distracted driving crash risks:

• Looking away from the road to do any of the following — look at or touch a cellphone, reach for the phone, dial the phone or text — increases the risk of a crash by a ratio of 2.93, or 293 percent.

• Texting alone increases the risk of a crash by 212 percent.

• Reading increases the risk of a crash by 338 percent.

• Eating increases the risk of a crash by 157 percent.

• Applying makeup increases the risk of a crash by 313 percent.

• Looking at a roadside object increases the risk of a crash by 370 percent.

Source: Virginia Tech Transportation Institute

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