That, at least, is the view of the National Safety Council. While technology vendors are busy extolling the virtues of hands-free communication and in-cab computers, NSC is warning that such technology amounts to a huge distraction for drivers.
Historically, the biggest concern around driver safety has focused on cellphone use. Given that virtually every individual with a driver’s license has one, that’s understandable. NSC believes cellphones are a major contributor to crashes, says council president Deborah Hersman, even though there isn’t a lot of empirical data that makes the connection. Few drivers who survive an accident will admit that they were on their phones at the time, and investigators can’t gain access to the devices without a warrant. What’s more, Hersman says, crashes are “significantly under-reported.”
Still, few would argue that holding a cellphone to one’s ear while piloting a vehicle doesn’t constitute a safety hazard. Many states and cities have imposed restrictions or bans on cellphone calls and texting while driving. But NSC is challenging the belief that hands-free operation of phones is safer.
A 2013 study by the American Automobile Association, in conjunction with researchers at the University of Utah, examined a range of potential distractions for drivers, including listening to the radio and engaging in conversation with passengers. It concluded that voice-based communications systems, especially hands-free phones and speech-to-text applications, pose the most serious problem.
While many drivers believe hands-free devices are safer than regular cellphones, multiple studies show otherwise, Hersman says. Talking on any kind of electronic device draws a driver’s attention away from the road.
“Multi-tasking is a myth,” she says. “Our brains are serial processors, toggling back and forth between different functions.” A study of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at Carnegie Mellon University found that brain activities devoted to processing information that’s critical to driving were decreased by about a third when the driver was listening on a phone. The University of Utah research identified the problem of “attention blindness,” which causes distracted drivers to miss seeing as much as 50 percent of the environment around them, Hersman says.
NSC is working with some 13,000 of its member companies to educate employers about the dangers of any type of in-vehicle phone communication. Already more than 1,000 companies prohibit both hand-held and hands-free operations, Hersman says, even though many of them have large teams of salespeople and technicians in the field. “It can be done without damaging productivity,” she says. Moreover, the liability implications of a crash caused by a company employee while on the phone can be severe.
One has to wonder whether NSC is fighting a losing battle. Even as it ramps up the arguments against driver interaction with in-vehicle communications devices, manufacturers are flooding the market with ever-more sophisticated systems. They feature large screens equipped with mapping and directional software, music and e-book players, and various other means of entertainment. “The lessons learned from the current research suggest that such voice-based interaction is not risk-free, and in some instances the impairments to driving may rise to the level associated with drunk driving,” said the AAA study.
Such technology is nevertheless a strong selling point for automakers seeking to differentiate their models in the marketplace, and attract a gadget-happy public. AAA projects a fivefold increase in vehicle-based “infotainment” systems by 2018.
On the commercial side, in-cab systems allow fleet managers to communicate with drivers, monitor their performance minute by minute, trace the progress of their vehicles and ensure the safety of loads. All of that is of undeniable benefit to carriers, but at what point does it began to jeopardize safety?
Pretty quickly, NSC believes. The problem, says Hersman, is that the automotive industry lacks a rigorous testing regime that would determine what kind of systems are safe to include in cars and trucks – much like that in use by the aviation sector. “That is a shame,” she says.
Considering the unlikelihood of manufacturers changing direction anytime soon, we can expect further attempts to curb their ingenuity through regulation and legislation. “We would absolutely support taking a look at technologies in the vehicle, to make sure they’re supporting safety,” says Hersman. Right now, the closest thing to a set of standards are voluntary guidelines drawn up by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has gone through several rounds of development.
It could be argued that NSC is undermining its own efforts by fixating on nearly every possible kind of distraction within a vehicle. But Hersman denies that the council’s efforts are overwhelming or unrealistic.
“Like many things,” she says, “it’s about ripeness, as far as the message and the willingness for it to be received.” She recalls a time when child safety seats and even seat belts weren’t considered essential to travel by car. More recently, a similar transformation in attitudes has taken place on the issue of public smoking.
“We kill too many people every year,” Hersman says. “We can change behaviors and attitudes. I just hope we don’t have to wait too long.”