Ted Simons: A new Triple A study looks at how voice-activated technologies in vehicles impact driver safety. I recently spoke with Triple A's Michelle Donati about the study.
Ted Simons: Thanks for joining us on "Arizona Horizon." Good to see you again. Let's talk about the study. You looked at voice-activated technology. What constitutes voice-activated technology in cars?
Michelle Donati: If you look at cars today, they are completely filled with technology. Some of this technology can actually make cars safer, but other pieces of technology looking at infotainment systems, for example, can actually pose a risk to drivers. So in this study the Triple A foundation for traffic safety and the University of Utah took a look at not only the in-vehicle technology, the infotainment system, meaning the system you can use to send an email via text, or send an email via voice-to-text system, or to update your Facebook status via some type of computer in the vehicle. Not only did we look at the infotainment systems, but researchers also looked at a variety of other distractions and behaviors to gauge and rate various cognitive risks.
Ted Simons: And real quickly, for the voice activated technology this, is like, if I'm driving and I say, change the station, or if I am driving I say email to the wife. Or something like -- If I'm speaking to a computer in the car.
Michelle Donati: Speaking to a computer in the car, or engaging with that computer in the car. So the car may say, you've received an email from your wife. Or you've received a text message, would you like to respond. And you would respond and vice versa. There are a variety of different speech-to-text systems, but this one for the sake of the study we looked at specifically speech-to-text email.
Ted Simons: How did you measure the distraction here and what did you find?
Michelle Donati: Researchers analyzed drivers doing six behaviors. Everything from listening to the radio, talking to passengers, using a handheld, hands-free device, to talk on the phone. As well as a speech-to-text email system. What they did in that process is they used -- They looked at things like brain movement, reaction times, and several other metrics. Once they were able to look at those metrics in a variety of settings, they assessed and developed a rating scale that's very similar to the scale that is used to rate the threat of a hurricane. So on category one, we have minimal risks, and that includes things like listening to the radio. So something that's minimal risk. Something that you can probably do very safely while driving. Category two we start to climb the risk scale. This poses a moderate risk. This level, and it includes things like talking on a phone whether that be handheld or hands-free device. The interesting thing with the category two is that a lot of times folks think that a hands-free device is safe every than that handheld device, but Triple A is a leader in driver safety and has said for many years the device itself has never been the distraction, the distraction is has been in the conversation. Both handheld and hands-free conversation on the phone fell into category two. The highest level of distraction, the level that is considered the extensive risk is category three, and that included the in-vehicle technology, that speech-to-text email system.
Ted Simons: Basically listen to the radio, probably yelling at the radio if you're me, that's minimal. Moderate is whether I'm doing this and driving, or I've got the little head phone or I'm yelling, speaking --
Michelle Donati: Exactly.
Ted Simons: It's far more distracting to just basically be driving and say, respond to email, check phone messages, check calendar -- Really?
Michelle Donati: It is. And you can look -- What the researchers found was that as mental workload increases, brain function is compromised. And these types of distractions, the infotainment systems, are essentially lulling drivers into a false sense of security, because they think my hands are on the wheel, my eyes are on the road. I can safely do this. I can safely respond to this text or this email. But that couldn't be further from the truth, because what that mental distraction is doing is creating a tunnel vision effect where researchers noticed that when drivers were engaging in this speech-to-text behavior, they were missing visual cues. They were missing road hazards. So sometimes that road hazard may be something as simple as missing your exit on the freeway. Missing that turn. Having to go out of the way, go longer -- Go the long way to get home. But when that hazard is a child, a pedestrian, another vehicle, there are much larger consequences attached to it.
Ted Simons: When you say tunnel vision, you literally mean tunnel vision. If I'm doing the voice activated technology thing, I literally am not seeing what's going on over here.
Michelle Donati: Absolutely. You are concentrating on what you're doing, whether you're talking on the phone, or engaging with that supreme-to-text system, or you are looking at driving. As much as we like to think we can do two things at once and we can multitask, the brain cannot do two things at once. So think about if you've ever been on the phone while driving. And you do miss your exit. That's because your brain is going back and forth between the task of driving and talking on the phone. So as much as we like to think that as much as we live in a society that encourages multitasking, it's something that we should not experiment with doing especially when driving.
Ted Simons: What does Triple A want for us to take with this information?
Michelle Donati: This study is really just the first piece of the first phase of a much larger study that we'll be drilling down into in the future. For this study there are a few take-aways. We want to raise awareness and educate and inform a variety of audiences. Consumers being one of them, just raising the awareness that mental distractions are being built into vehicles and to avoid these while you're driving. If it's not essential to the operation of your vehicle, avoid doing it while you're driving. We also want to raise the issue with policymakers, both on the state and national level. We're actively involved at the state capitol, Triple A Arizona, we actively engage in about 100 bills every session, so we'll be monitoring that. And with automakers, we know automakers see this demand for technology, it's not going away, but we also know both Triple A and automakers have a shared vision of creating safer roads and safer cars for everyone.
Ted Simons: Well, this is fascinating stuff. Michelle, thank you.
Michelle Donati: Thank you.