Report: Hands-free systems aren’t helping issue of driver distraction

Hands-free in-car systems and phone apps may be even more distracting than cellphones, since they often make errors and otherwise prove difficult to use.

Distracted driving remains a serious problem in Texas. According to the state Department of Transportation, almost one-fifth of all accidents that occurred in Texas in 2013 involved some form of driver distraction. The 94,943 known crashes that involved distraction, inattention or cellphone use that year resulted in over 18,000 injuries and 459 fatalities.

Outside of school zones, state law only bans novice and bus drivers from talking or texting while driving, which may contribute to the state's high rate of distracted driving accidents. Alarmingly, new research also suggests that even those drivers who try to be conscientious by using less distracting technology, such as voice-based systems, may still be putting other motorists in danger.

Cognitively demanding technology

According to Fox News, researchers from the University of Utah and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety recently had 162 participants test out voice-based phone apps and in-car systems in a lab, during a driving simulation and while actually driving a car. Researchers found that many of the systems were overly complex to use or inclined to errors, so they actually created more cognitive distraction than simply talking on a handheld device would.

Four of the six in-vehicle systems tested were rated more distracting than carrying on a conversation via handheld phone. One especially distracting phone app caused two of the study's participants to rear-end another vehicle during the driving simulation. Another participant became significantly distracted when he had to hurry to prevent the same app from mistakenly dialing 911. These findings suggest that, at present, many hands-free systems do not effectively reduce driver distraction.

Dangerous driver misconceptions

Many drivers assume that hands-free systems present a less risky alternative to directly using a phone to talk, browse or text. Systems that are built into vehicles may seem especially safe. The National Safety Council found that 53 percent of drivers think hands-free technology wouldn't be built into vehicles if it weren't safe. Eighty percent of drivers think hands-free devices are safer than handheld devices, and 70 percent of the drivers who use these devices do so out because of safety concerns.

Still, more than 30 studies have found no discernible difference in the cognitive distraction associated with hands-free and handheld cellphones. Presumably, other hands-free systems that feature even more capabilities are similarly distracting. Adding to the problem, these systems are largely unregulated, according to Fox News. The level of distraction associated with a particular system is often unknown, especially to drivers.

Distraction-related accidents in Texas

Unfortunately, many Texans may suffer harm in accidents caused by drivers who are distracted, whether by purportedly safe technology or by obviously risky activities, such as texting. An inattentive driver who causes an accident may be found negligent and held liable, even if the driver was using technology that he or she believed to be safe at the time of the accident.

Anyone who has been harmed because of a distracted driver's careless decisions should consider consulting with an attorney about pursuing compensation.

Keywords: distracted, driving, accident, injury