The study’s most surprising finding is that technology developed to enhance the safety of text messaging while driving is not very effective.
When compared with other diversions inside the car, “interacting with the speech-to-text system was the most cognitively distracting,” the report said. “This clearly suggests that the adoption of voice-based systems in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety.”
Researchers did a series of controlled studies using driving simulators and on-road tests. For two years, groups of test subjects wore a Medusa-like cap of electrode wires to test how their brains reacted to the rapidly increasing number of distractions that sap the ability of drivers to focus on the road. Each distraction-induced change in brain waves was marked by the computer with a squiggly line on a graph.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety sponsored the study, which was released Wednesday.
The data were generally consistent with other recent research that can be boiled down to a simple conclusion: The more complicated and absorbing a task, the greater the distraction from the road. The longer it takes to complete — a conversation, a message, setting a GPS destination — the worse it gets.
The study also underscored a problem called “inattention blindness,” which translates into layman’s terms as “I see it, but it doesn’t register.” It takes longer for distracted drivers to connect what they see to an appropriate reaction such as braking or swerving to safety.
“It’s very, very powerful,” said the AAA foundation’s president, Peter Kissinger. “The light can register, but the brain is focused on something else.”
Federal data show that distracted driving was a factor in about 10 percent of the fatal accidents nationwide in 2011. In addition to 3,331 deaths — a slight increase from the previous year — 387,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver.
The AAA foundation’s study is the latest piece in a body of research that has grown exponentially in the five years since Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood elevated a growing public awareness of distracted driving into a national crusade.
Though the findings have not been uniform, the research has established that almost anything that distracts a driver from the task of getting down the road creates a risk.
Proving something most reasonable people would agree on echoes the era when researchers sought to verify that smoking caused cancer. It demonstrates with science the danger of something that has become an immensely popular habit.