Cost of Convenience: Voice-Activated Features Pose Big Risk to Drivers

AAA cautions drivers on risks of mental distractions

Phoenix, June 12, 2013. Hands-free technologies make it easier for motorists to text, talk on the phone, and use Facebook while they drive. But is there a cost to this convenience?   

The answer is yes, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Today, AAA is releasing the most in-depth analysis to date of mental distractions behind the wheel. The study found that voice-activated in-car technologies are more dangerous than hands-free or handheld devices.

“Mental distractions are being built into cars,” said Linda Gorman director of communications and public affairs for AAA Arizona. “As a leader in driver safety, AAA believes this is creating a looming public safety crisis.”

In the study, drivers engaged in six common tasks, from talking on the phone to responding to voice-activated emails. Their brainwaves, eye movement, reaction time and other metrics were evaluated by experts from the University of Utah.

Experts assessed what happens to drivers’ mental workload when they multi task. This information was used to rate levels of mental distraction similar to the Saffir-Simpson scale used to rank hurricanes:  

  • Category 1 included tasks with minimal risks, such as listening to the radio.
  • Category 2 included tasks with moderate risks. This included talking on a cell-phone, both handheld and hands-free.
  • Category 3 included tasks with extensive risks. This included listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features.

“These findings reinforce AAA’s position that hands-free is not risk-free,” said Gorman. “Mental distractions create tunnel vision where motorists may not see hazards right in front of them – even if their hands are on the wheel and their eyes are on the road.”

As a safety advocate, AAA will use the results of this study to promote dialogue about distracted driving with policymakers. The auto club engaged in more than 100 bills introduced at the state capitol this year. This included a bill that proposed a wireless device ban for young drivers during the permit phase as well as the first six months of licensure. The bill was unsuccessful. However, AAA will continue its legislative efforts in 2014.

AAA will also use the findings to engage in dialogue with the automotive and electronics industries. The auto club does not want emerging technologies to compromise public safety. The auto club already has provided copies of this study to CEOs of all major U.S. automakers.

“We want to use this information to work in collaboration with automakers,” Gorman said. “We have a shared goal of improving safety for all drivers.”

The study comprised 102 drivers ranging in age from 18 to 36 years. To measure effects in controlled and real world settings, drivers were studied on both simulators and instrumented vehicles. Researchers used a generic system that captured the essential elements of hands-free technology available on the market today.

AAA is an advocate for the safety and security of the motoring public. For more information, visit

AAA Arizona, the Arizona affiliate of AAA, provides automotive, insurance and travel services to more than 825,000 Arizona members. Annually, AAA’s Roadside Assistance responds to more than 450,000 calls for help on Arizona roadways. The auto club also provides insurance, travel, auto repair, discounts and financial services to AAA members. Since its founding in 1927, AAA Arizona has been a leading advocate for the safety and security of all travelers.