AAA Research finds hands-free devices don't mean risk-free driving

Posted on June 12, 2013 



HELENA, Mont., (June 12, 2013) – Hands-free technologies have been heralded by many as the future for safe in-vehicle communication.  However, new research suggests dangerous mental distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. 


The AAA Foundation's Cognitive Distraction Research found that as mental workload increases, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised and drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues.  This is the most comprehensive study to date that measures the mental distraction of drivers, and arms AAA with evidence to appeal to the public to not use these voice-to-text features while their vehicle is in motion.


“These research findings are significant because there is a predicted five-fold increase in infotainment systems in new vehicles by 2018,” says AAA spokeswoman Kaelyn Kelly.  “AAA is bringing this new data to the conversation about limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars.  This discussion is particularly important because of the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free.”


Cognitive distraction expert Dr. David Strayer and his research team at the University of Utah measured brainwaves, eye movement and other metrics to assess what happens to drivers’ mental workload when they attempt to do multiple things at once, building upon decades of research in the aerospace and automotive industries. The research included:

  • Cameras mounted inside an instrumented car to track eye and head movement of drivers.
  • A Detection-Response-Task (DRT) device was used to record driver reaction time in response to triggers of red and green lights added to their field of vision.
  • A special electroencephalographic (EEG)-configured skull cap was used to chart participants’ brain activity so that researchers could determine mental workload.


Using established research protocols borrowed from aviation psychology and a variety of performance metrics, drivers engaged in common tasks, from listening to an audio book or talking on the phone to listening and responding to voice-activated emails while behind the wheel.


Researchers used the results to rate the levels of mental distraction drivers experienced while performing each of the tasks. The levels of mental distraction are represented on a scale:

  • Tasks such as listening to the radio ranked as a category “1” level of distraction, or a minimal risk.
  • Talking on a cell phone, both handheld and hands-free, resulted in a “2,” or a moderate risk.
  • Listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features increased mental workload and distraction levels of the drivers to a “3” rating, or one of extensive risk.


Based on this research, AAA urges the automotive and electronics industries to join us in exploring:

  • Limiting use of voice-activated technology to core driving-related activities such as climate control, windshield wipers and cruise control, and to ensure these applications do not lead to increased safety risk due to mental distraction while the car is moving.
  • Disabling certain functionalities of voice-to-text technologies, such as using social media or interacting with email and text messages, so that they are inoperable while the vehicle is in motion.
  • Educating vehicle owners and mobile device users about responsible use and safety risks for in-vehicle technologies.


AAA is also using the findings to promote dialogue with policy makers, safety advocates and the automotive industry to ensure that these emerging in-vehicle technologies won’t lead to unintentional compromises in public safety.  As part of this effort, AAA has already met with safety advocates and provided copies of the report to CEOs of all major U.S. automakers. 


Established by AAA in 1947, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety is a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit, publicly-supported charitable educational and research organization. Dedicated to saving lives and reducing injuries on our roads, the Foundation’s mission is to prevent crashes and save lives through research and education about traffic safety. The Foundation has funded over 200 research projects designed to discover the causes of traffic crashes, prevent them, and minimize injuries when they do occur.  Visit for more information on this and other research.


AAA MountainWest is dedicated to providing its over 180,000 members in Alaska, Montana and Wyoming with travel, insurance, financial and auto-related services. A fully tax-paying, not-for-profit corporation, AAA MountainWest, Inc. works for the improvement of motoring and traveling conditions and is a leader for travel, civic and safety issues. AAA can be visited on the Internet at


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