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The voice-to-texting myth

By Jay MacDonald ·
Friday, June 14, 2013
Posted: 6 am ET

Automakers such as Ford and Toyota have invested considerable bucks to develop onboard technology that converts a driver's spoken words into text messages, ostensibly as a safe alternative to the dangers of handheld texting while driving.

Unfortunately, a new study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety finds that voice-to-text messaging is even more distracting to drivers than talking on a cellphone.

The study measured reaction time and brainwave function of drivers primarily in their 20s and 30s as they performed tasks in three environments: a lab, a driving simulator and behind the wheel of a Subaru Outback on residential streets.

Researchers discovered that verbally texting while driving caused a "large" mental distraction, compared to the "moderate/significant" distraction of actually talking on the phone or with a passenger, and the "small" distraction of listening to music or an e-book.

The AAA findings square with those noted in 2010 by cognitive psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in their book, "The Invisible Gorilla." Those studies demonstrated that, because humans lack the capacity to focus on two things at once, any form of cell use while driving blurs attention and slows reaction time every bit as much as driving while intoxicated.

"The problem is in our minds, not our hands," Simons says.

Too bad someone didn't tip the automakers to that inconvenient truth. According to London-based ABI Research, some 9 million vehicles equipped with infotainment systems such as Ford's Sync and Toyota's Entune are being shipped this year, with 62 million like vehicles planned by 2018.

"As we push toward these hands-free systems, we may be solving one problem while creating another," observed Joel Cooper, a University of Utah professor who worked on the AAA study. "Tread lightly. There's a lot of rush to develop these systems."

Both outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman have called for a nationwide ban on all handheld and hands-free phone use while driving. LaHood wants automakers to restrict Internet surfing and social media use through their infotainment systems as well.

But making that happen may be harder than climbing Pikes Peak in a vintage Pinto.

Forty-one states have passed legislation banning handheld phone use while driving, but none of the laws include hands-free telephony, according to AAA. Previous national safety campaigns to combat drunken driving and make seat belt use mandatory faced similar long slogs. (I'm talking to you, New Hampshire -- the only state still without a seat belt law.)

Two questions: What's it going to take to stop the 3,000-plus teen deaths per year attributable to cellphone distraction? And why aren't we hearing from the auto insurance companies on this tech-borne epidemic?

Follow me on Twitter: @omnisaurus

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Jay MacDonald is a Bankrate contributing editor and co-author of "Future Millionaires' Guidebook," an e-book by Bankrate editors and reporters.

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