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Hands-free technologies are more distracting than you think

Those who want to stay on the right side of the law will probably have a hands-free device for making and taking calls, but it seems they might be just as dangerous.

Research conducted on behalf of the American Automobile Association (AAA) found drivers can be cognitively distracted for as long as 27 seconds when using one – even if their hands are on the wheel and eyes on the road ahead.

The AA said the study, which looked at 10 hands-free systems in cars from 2015, brings to light “new and unexpected concerns” over whether they are a safe alternative to physically holding and using a phone while driving. 

Researchers from University of Utah rated the level of distraction each hands-free technology had on 257 drivers aged from 21 to 70 and another 65 aged between 21 and 68. A scale of one to five was used for each hands-free technology; one being a ‘mild distraction’ and five a ‘very high distraction’.

It found the system in the Chevrolet Equinox and Buick Lacrosse were the safest on test, scoring 2.4 (half way between a moderate and high distraction). The next safest hands-free went to the Toyota 4Runner, with a score of 2.9.

Google’s Now hands-free and Apple’s Siri were among the technologies tested. The former scored 3.0, making it safer than Siri. Siri did, however, beat Microsoft’s own personal assistant, Cortana, with a score of 3.4 versus 3.8. 

The only system more distracting than Cortana, in fact, was the hands-free in a Mazda 6, which scored 4.5.

Even though the Chevy Equinox came out joint top, researchers noted a driver was still cognitively distracted for 15 seconds, which at a motorway speed of 70mph means you have driven 472.5 metres or just under half a kilometre. 

Do that in the Mazda 6 meanwhile, and you’ve covered 850.5 metres. That’s a long way to drive with your mind on other things. 

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety CEO Peter Kissinger said: “The lasting effects of mental distractions pose a hidden and pervasive danger that would likely come as a surprise to most drivers.” 

“The massive increase in voice-activated technologies in cars and phones represents a growing safety problem for drivers. We are concerned that these new systems may invite driver distraction,” AAA’s president and CEO Marshall Doney added.

Hands-free kits have been in the firing line on a number of occasions. Road safety charity Brake campaigned to get them banned back in late 2013. 

One study controversially suggested using a mobile phone while driving – an illegal practice in the UK for over a decade – doesn’t actually make a driver more likely to crash.

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