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Cognitive Distraction Study Suggests SMS Text Messaging Systems May Adversely Affect Traffic Safety

Cognitive Distraction Study Suggests SMS Text Messaging Systems May Adversely Affect Traffic Safety

By Jeff Youngs,
The American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety has sponsored a cognitive distraction study performed by researchers at the University of Utah in order to measure driving distraction due to secondary in-vehicle activities, such as listening to the radio, talking on a hand-held cell phone, or composing a speech-to-text message and sending it. The results indicate that "a rush to voice-based interactions in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety."

Researchers designed three experiments. In each, drivers were asked to perform 8 different tasks, ranging from driving without any distraction to driving while taking what is called an Operation Span (OSPAN), a test specifically designed to measure a person's ability to multi-task. In the first experiment, subjects drove a car. In the second experiment, subjects drove a driving simulator. In the third experiment, subjects drove an instrumented vehicle in a residential neighborhood. For each task in each experiment, researchers assessed driver mental workload, reaction time, and accuracy.

With non-distracted driving and driving while taking an OSPAN representing the best-case and worst-case distractions, the study determined that listening to the radio or an audio book produced low levels of cognitive driving distraction. Talking to a fellow passenger or on a hand-held or hands-free cell phone produced moderate levels of cognitive driving distraction. Performing in-vehicle activities, such as using a speech-to-text messaging system to send or receive text messages, produced high levels of cognitive driving distraction.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety summarized the findings: "Compared to the other activities studies, we found that interacting with the speech-to-text system was the most cognitively distracting. This clearly suggests that the adoption of voice-based systems in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety."


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