In this landmark study of distracted driving, the AAA Foundation challenges the notion that drivers are safe and attentive as long as their eyes are on the road and their hands are on the wheel. Using cutting-edge methods for measuring brain activity and assessing indicators of driving performance, this research examines the mind of the driver, and highlights the mental distractions caused by a variety of tasks that may be performed behind the wheel.

By creating a first-of-its-kind rating scale of driver distractions, this study shows that certain activities – such as talking on a hands-free cell phone or interacting with a speech-to-text email system – place a high cognitive burden on drivers, thereby reducing the available mental resources that can be dedicated to driving. By demonstrating that mentally-distracted drivers miss visual cues, have slower reaction times, and even exhibit a sort of tunnel vision, this study provides some of the strongest evidence yet that “hands-free” doesn’t mean risk free.

Background 

Distracted driving is a significant highway safety threat, responsible for well over 3,000 fatalities each year. 

There are three main sources of driver distraction: 

  1. Visual (eyes off the road) 
  2. Manual (hands off the wheel) 
  3. Cognitive (mind off the task) 

Of these, cognitive distraction has been the hardest to study. 

Prevailing assumptions have held that “hands-free” = safe: 

  • 66% of licensed drivers say driver use of hand-held cell phones is unacceptable;  and
  • 56% say hands-free is acceptable. 

New speech-based in-vehicle technologies and infotainment systems have proliferated. 

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety set out in 2011 to study this issue and investigate potential sources of cognitive distractions for drivers.

New Study: Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile Objectives: 

  • Isolate the cognitive elements of distracted driving; 
  • Evaluate the amount of cognitive workload caused by various tasks performed by drivers; and 
  • Create a rating scale ranking tasks according to how much cognitive distraction they cause