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Driving While Texting Dilemma: Voice No Better Than Thumbs

Driving While Texting Dilemma: Voice No Better Than Thumbs

Texting has become a habit for many drivers, regardless of laws against it and educational campaigns highlighting the danger. Now it turns out that drivers who thought they were behaving more responsibly by using speech-to-text systems were in reality no less distracted. Of course, radios, temperature-regulation systems and fold-out maps are also distractions. Where should drivers draw the line?

By Peter Suciu TechNewsWorld ECT News Network
04/23/13 11:33 AM PT

Voice-based systems offer no real safety advantage over manual texting, according to a study sponsored by the Southwest Region University Transportation Center and conducted by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

The study, reportedly the first of its kind, is based on the performance of 43 research participants driving an actual vehicle on a closed course. Driver-response times were significantly delayed no matter which texting method was used, the study found, and for many tasks, manual texting required slightly less time than voice-to-text methods.

Drivers apparently felt safer when using a voice-to-text application than when they were manually texting, suggesting it gave them a false sense of security.

"Understanding the issue of distracted driving is an evolving process as new technologies emerge, and this study is but one step in that process," said Christine E. Yager, a TTI Associate Transportation Researcher who managed the study.

"We believe it's a useful step, and we're eager to see what other studies may find," she added.

"Each driver is responsible for his or her own choices," Yager told TechNewsWorld. "What we're saying is that based on this particular study, manual texting and voice texting are roughly equal in terms of how they can complicate the driving task and potentially compromise safety. Ideally, these and other research findings can help drivers make those choices."

Distraction Is Nothing New

Given the fairly low number of participants involved, it's questionable whether this study was encompassing enough to support any conclusions.

"I take these studies with a grain of salt," said Mark C. Boyadjis, senior analyst and manager of infotainment at IHS Automotive.

Dstractions are not entirely new to drivers, after all.

"The radio was the original distraction, and we didn't outlaw AM radios," Boyadjis told TechNewsWorld.

Of course, drivers today have many distractions besides the radio, and judgment comes into play. Drivers are the ones ultimately responsible for deciding whether, when and how to use devices that may distract them from properly operating their vehicles or watching the road.

"It is certainly the second point with a pinch of the first," said Praveen Chandrasekar, Frost & Sullivan's infotainment and telematics program manager.

"It is because of user behavior. An American adult has a smartphone and a tablet -- and just five years ago, this was not the case. The proliferation of devices is on the rise, but at the same time distraction has always been there," he told TechNewsWorld.

Distractions are even built into a car's controls, but there has been no call to regulate, say, a driver's adjustment of the temperature in a vehicle.

"When you are inside the car, you are distraction-free only if your eyes are on the road," Chandraskar added. "When you are adjusting the temperature or something, you take your eyes off for only a second or two. That is still very much a distraction from driving."

Good Distraction vs. Bad Distraction

There are also times when distractions might not be such a bad thing for drivers, especially for those putting in long miles without someone to help pass the time. The loneliness of the road and wandering thoughts also contribute to distraction.

"If you are driving down a long highway, you may want the distraction, as your attention could wander and you could fall asleep. Having a radio to keep you engaged could be helpful," noted Roger Kay, principal analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates.

"However, if you are in heavy traffic flow in a big city, any audio or video could be very distracting," he told TechNewsWorld.

"These are two distinctly different situations. Those are the extremes, and there are plenty of situations in between where devices may be helpful or distracting," Kay added

Voiced-based systems are still very much in the early stages of evolution and development. As these become more engaging and easier to use, they could turn out to be far less distracting than they are today.

"The voice is a natural interface for devices, and finally a smartphone or a car can recognize our voices," said Boyadjis. "The reason it is so distracting now is that it is still in development. The user expects more from it than they can get. In the future, it could reach parity with what users' want and expect."

This circles back to what the study's authors found about how technology is increasing the number of potential distractions.

"We went from a world where not much more than a radio and passengers entered the vehicle to a world where the driver can talk, text, and access the Internet on a mobile device while driving," said TTI's Yager. "Technology is advancing rapidly, and we believe it's important to ask questions about how that technology may affect driver behavior and safety."


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