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Follow-up cognitive study looks at voice in-vehicle systems

Written by Ankin Law Office

The American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety has recently been involved in a series of studies aimed at determining the effects of cognitive, or mental, distraction on motorists. The first study to occur examined how certain tasks can affect drivers’ abilities to focus on the roads. Researchers looked at how much cognitive focus and energy were required by seemingly small actions like listening to the radio, talking on a handheld cellphone and using a speech-to-text email system. In direct opposition to currently popularly-held beliefs, using a speech-to-text email system proved to be the most distracting task of the study. Researchers concluded that hands-free devices actually contribute to distraction instead of eliminating it. An accident lawyer in Chicago often sees the damaging effects of this mistaken point of view.

In a follow-up study, researchers examined the amount of cognitive distraction caused by voice-based in-vehicle systems. These popular hands-free systems are often touted by manufacturers as safety features despite their propensity to actually increase mental workloads in motorists. During the study, researchers found that although the makers of these voice systems have a long way to go, it is possible to develop technologies that lessen motorists’ cognitive workload. For now, however, any interaction that drivers have with voice-based systems may have unintended consequences.

Details of the study

With help from researchers from the University of Utah, the main author of the series of studies, Dr. David Strayer, used heart rate monitors, instrumented test vehicles and other highly sensitive equipment to determine drivers’ reaction times under certain conditions. These conditions included the following:

  • Driving without distraction
  • Adjusting the radio or car temperature
  • Listening to messages
  • Listening to and composing messages
  • Navigating simple menus
  • Navigating complex menus

Apple’s Siri® Version iOS7 was also separately evaluated in the study. All but the tasks of driving and adjusting the radio were done using a hands-free voice command system. Each task was given a rating on the same five-category rating scale used in the first study on cognitive distraction.


At the conclusion of the study, researchers found that the accuracy of the voice recognition software directly affected how distracting each system was while being used by motorists. The systems that had low accuracy and reliability required much more cognitive function to operate and generated a high level of distraction, largely due to frustration. Researchers also discovered that composing emails and text messages was more distracting that simply using these systems to listen to incoming messages.

The results indicate that the quality of the voice used by each system had no bearing on levels of mental distraction. Whether a system uses a natural voice or a synthetic voice, the result is the same.

Apple’s Siri was also evaluated using a wider range of tasks. This includes using social media, updating calendars and composing and sending texts. The system was noted as causing the most cognitive distraction among all the systems tested in the study.

An in depth look at current systems

To take the study one step further, researchers with Precision Driving Research evaluated the performance of six common in-vehicle voice systems from the world’s largest automotive companies while performing two common tasks: voice dialing and changing the radio. Only one system managed to receive a 1.7, on scale with the distraction seen when motorists listen to an audiobook. Two more systems were slightly more distracting at 2.2 and 2.7 while three systems were rated over 3. One system was rated as having a high level of cognitive distraction at 3.7. In comparison, the task of driving while speaking on a hand-held cellphone, an act that has been made illegal in many states, was only rated at a 2.45 for distraction.

Preventing future distraction

In-vehicle voice command systems cause a wide array of distraction among motorists. With the relative success of at least one system, it is clear that the industry has the ability to provide systems that do not require drivers to lose their focus on the roads in such a severe manner. In order to create better systems in the future, researchers believe that system developers should focus on the factors that contribute most to distraction. This includes accuracy, complexity and the time it takes for motorists to finish tasks while operating the systems. An accident lawyer in Chicago understands how even the smallest distractions can cause deadly accidents, so all areas must be addressed for optimum safety. As a guideline, the AAA recommends that developers aim to create systems that cause no more distraction than simply listening to the radio.

Dangers of distraction

Distracted driving is one of the most dangerous practices in which motorists can engage. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the U.S. there are 9 people killed and over 1,153 people injured every day due to crashes involving a distracted driver. In 2012, almost 3,330 people died in these accidents. Despite the obvious risks and illegality in many areas of the nation, 31 percent of drivers aged 18 to 64 reported in a recent survey that they had read or sent text messages or emails while driving at least once in the past 30 days.

Motorists who have been injured by the negligent actions of distracted drivers should seek out the assistance of an accident lawyer in Chicago as soon as possible. With the help of an attorney, accident victims may have a greater chance of receiving the compensation they need to cover their medical expenses and finally heal from their ordeals.

Categories: Auto Accidents