Study: Using Voice Assistants in Cars as Distracting as Drunk Driving
Using voice assistants while driving is as dangerous as driving drunk, according to a new study by the Transport Research Laboratory, a British transportation consulting and research firm. Interacting with voice assistants distracts drivers and slows down reaction time, increasing the likelihood of a crash.
Stable Crash Numbers
TRL’s chief scientist Dr. Shaun Helman explained the statistics of car crashes and how they relate to smartphone use at a hearing of the UK’s Transport Committee last week. The UK had seen a drop in fatal car crashes between 2007 and 2012, but those numbers have steadied at the new level ever since.
That’s similar to the U.S., which has had approximately 40,000 road deaths for the last few years, according to a National Safety Council report. While it’s not possible to know exactly how many crashes are caused by voice assistants, the NSC estimated 8 percent of crashes involve distraction.
Drinking and Talking
This isn’t the first time the danger of using voice assistants while driving has been examined. A study in 2015 by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety tested the cognitive demands of different tasks involving voice assistants while driving. The results showed that using even hands-free use of a smartphone with a voice assistant could be enormously distracting, and lead to multiple driving errors. On top of that, the divided attention could linger for 20 seconds after the driver stopped talking to the voice assistant, extending the dangerous period of distraction.
Hands On or Off
Voice controls are often touted as a solution to distracted driving. The brain should be able to focus on the road better without the need to look at or tap on a screen. TRL says the evidence for that isn’t there. TRL’s research points to the idea that voice controls for a smartphone are just as distracting to a driver as picking up and tapping at the screen. Either activity pulls focus from driving as much as being a little above the legal alcohol limit.
TRL recommended new legislation to account for the ways technology offers new distractions and potential dangers. The group also urged new research to determine more precisely the dangers of voice assistants while driving, as well as educating the public about them. In the U.S., laws against using a smartphone by hand while driving are becoming ubiquitous, but addressing voice technology in cars has yet to become a legislative issue. More safety studies are likely to be necessary before any legal changes occur.