Drivers who believe they are focused and safe on the road while using a hands-free headset to talk on the phone may want to reconsider their risk analysis, according to a study released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety on June 12.
The study, titled "Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile," looked at cognitive distractions, tasks that take a driver's mind off the road even as their eyes and hands are still engaged in driving, and found that significant distractions can occur, even when drivers use hands-free devices.
"We've looked at visual and manual [distractions] before so for us, this was the next step. We looked at the fact that there has been very little traction in dealing with the risks that can come with hands-free device operation," said Bruce Hamilton, manager of research and communications with the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
The research for the study was conducted by Dr. David Strayer, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah, who said that the study applied techniques used to evaluate pilots to study drivers, measuring brainwaves and using subjective assessments of mental workload developed by NASA.
"There is a big body literature outside of driving in aviation, where you can mentally overload pilots. The main thing is that there is a move to go hands-free with devices [for drivers], and the big story is that hands-free isn't risk free," Strayer said.
According to Hamilton, research estimates that there will be hands-free devices enabling everything from phone calls to updating social media in 62 million new cars by 2018, and that three out of every four American drivers surveyed believe that they can safely use such devices.
"One of the interesting things about cognitive distraction is that you don't have the awareness that you are distracted. People convince themselves that they are good at it when they are not ... I have seen two fatalities from this, where their last act was updating Facebook," Strayer said.
According to Hamilton, he hopes the study will engender a discussion about the wisdom of adding ever more hands-free devices to new vehicles.
"Now that we have this real data behind this, let's put the brakes on this proliferation [of devices], take a break here and talk about this," Hamilton said.
Strayer's research team measured the degree of cognitive distraction elicited in drivers - both in a simulator and on a real street - by asking them to engage in a number of tasks ranging from hardly distracting to very distracting, arriving at a 5 category system of ranking the potential distraction posed by a given task.
At the lowest level of distraction, or category one, there was just driving with no other tasks added, while the highly distracting category five involved a special task of memorizing words and solving math problems while driving.
Fairly passive tasks, such as listening to the radio rated a mildly distracting 1.21, while talking on a hand-held cellphone was significantly distracting at 2.45, and using a hands-free speech to text email program was very distracting at 3.06.
These scores were obtained by first standardizing the scores from every measure of distraction - response time in milliseconds or brain wave amplitude, for instance - for each condition, such as talking on the phone or dictating an email, and then summing the average score for each condition across each subject.
According to Hamilton, the hope is that the rating scale will enable better discussion about devices and distracted driving.
"Getting this rating scale was something that was consumer friendly and easy to digest, and that was a big goal for us," Hamilton said.
Interestingly, the study showed speaking on a hands-free cellphone to be marginally less distracting than speaking to a passenger in the car, the former rating 2.27 and the latter 2.33, a result Strayer said changes when passengers are allowed to assist drivers in their tasks while talking.
Ultimately, Strayer said, keeping eyes, hands and minds on the road while driving is probably the best advice for drivers.
That's a message that law enforcement has been trying to get through to motorists for awhile now, according to Major Ron Stevens, of the Westminster Police Department.
"A lot of the deaths that are occurring are because of distracted driving and if people could focus more on driving while behind the wheel, we would probably have less crashes," Stevens said.
Under current state law, it is illegal to use a hand-held cellphone while operating a vehicle in motion, but, according to Stevens, it is considered a secondary offense, meaning the police can only write a ticket if there is another, primary offense for which they can pull a driver over.
"Our guys have only written three warnings in the first three months of 2013 ... I believe there will be a marked increase in violations once [using a hand-held cellphone] becomes a primary offense," Stevens said.
That day will soon be at hand: On Oct. 1, a change in state law will go into effect making using a hand-held cellphone a primary offense.
"We will use a 30 day warning time frame so that people understand that this is [now] a primary offense. Then after the 30 days we will start writing the citations," Steven said.
Stevens said that while he hopes the change in the law will make a positive difference, he knows that it's ultimately up to drivers to stay focused and avoid sources of distraction, even hands-free conversations.
"If there is something that is that important, pull over, complete it and then get back on the road. We are aiming for zero percent fatalities and the only way to do that is to stop the distracted driving," Stevens said.