Cognitive distraction study shows risks with voice systems

A recent study on cognitive distraction raises questions over the use of speech technology in cars.

People who drive around San Antonio see a lot of distracted drivers - people talking on their phones, sending texts, chatting with passengers, eating and even putting on makeup as they navigate the city's busy roads. Distraction while driving is such a problem that the Governors Highway Safety Association reports it was a factor in 10 percent of all traffic accident fatalities during 2014.

Looking at cognitive distraction

Distraction is more than playing with a radio button or looking at the screen of a phone. It can also be defined as putting one's mental attention on something other than the road. This is referred to as cognitive distraction and while a great deal of attention has been given to understanding manual and visual distraction, little has been given to this form. To learn how mental distraction affects drivers, the American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety recently conducted a series of experiments.

Using a group of 32 drivers who admitted to using their cellphone while driving, had a clean driving history, were English fluent, possessed good vision and showed normal neurological functioning, researchers gave them a number of tests in three different environments. These environments consisted of a laboratory, driving in a residential neighborhood and a driving simulator. The tests involved different tasks such as using a hand-held cellphone, talking to a passenger, using a voice-to-speech system and listening to the radio.

Creating a measuring scale

One of the goals of the researchers was to create a measuring scale for cognitive distraction. To establish the low end, the participants were asked to just focus on the task of driving and to establish the high point, they were given a set of complex equations to solve. To capture data, researchers used special sensors on the participants' heads to record the activity in the portion of the brain used for driving, as well as cameras to record drivers' physical actions.

Each of the six tasks were then assigned out to the group. When the tests were completed and the data was compiled, researchers identified that the tasks with the highest amount of mental workloads were using the speech-to-text system, talking on a hand-held cellphone and talking with a passenger.

Concern raised over speech systems

The study brought particular attention to speech-to-text systems, since they are routinely being installed in new vehicles. These systems allow drivers to make phone calls, send texts, find a radio station and even ask for directions from a computerized navigational program. Such technology is touted by manufacturers and companies as lowering drivers' risks of getting into an accident because they enable drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.

However, these tasks can be more mentally distracting. Drivers in the study scanned their environment less frequently, missed important cues and were slower to hit the brake in a potentially dangerous situation. This raises the question of whether the new voice technology is really as safe as it is marketed to be.

Accidents involving distracted drivers in Texas can affect victims for the rest of their life. To understand their rights and options, they may want to sit down with an experienced injury attorney.