AAA/University of Utah: Voice-Activated Technology is Distracting Even With Eyes On the Road

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The promise of voice-activated technology was that it would solve the driver distraction issue. In a joint study, AAA and the University of Utah have determined that voice-activated tech has the exact opposite effect, causing distraction even when drivers’ hands are on the wheel, and eyes are on the road.

The study was conducted by Dr. David Strayer and Dr. Joel Cooper of the University of Utah. They studied a total of 257 drivers between the ages of 21 and 70, in 2015 model-year vehicles. Sixty-five additional drivers aged 21 to 68 tested the three phone systems.

The key findings:

  • The distraction caused through use of voice-activated technologies can persist up to 27 seconds after making a call, selecting music, or sending a text.
  • Voice-activated systems that are error-prone and involve longer interaction times can result in greater mental work load, and potentially unsafe distractions.
  • AAA is urging manufacturers to improve the safety of their voice-activated systems by making them less complicated, more accurate and generally easier to use.
  • Drivers should use caution while using voice-activated systems, even at seemingly safe moments when there is a lull in traffic or the vehicle is stopped at an intersection, because the impairing effects of distraction may last much longer than people realize.

“The lasting effects of mental distraction pose a hidden and pervasive danger that would likely come as a surprise to most drivers,” said Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “The results indicate that motorists could miss stop signs, pedestrians and other vehicles while the mind is readjusting to the task of driving.”

Twenty-seven seconds of additional distraction AFTER utilizing the voice-activated technology is significant. At the 25 mile per hour limit of the study, drivers travel the length of almost seven football fields. At 65 miles per hour, it’s half a mile. Even the least distracting systems, according to the study, result in more than 15 seconds of concentration after completing a task.

“Drivers should use caution while using voice-activated systems, even at seemingly safe moments when there is a lull in traffic or the car is stopped at an intersection,” said Lloyd P. Albert, AAA Northeast Senior Vice President of Public and Government Affairs. “The reality is that mental distractions persist and can affect driver attention even after the light turns green.”

The results align with a recent MIT study, which concentrated on the visual engagement required to utilize voice-activated technology. “Some voice interactions result in ‘moderate to large visual engagement’ when measured in ‘glance time to device or total eyes off the road time.'”

AAA Driver Distraction

The researchers measured distraction on a five-point scale, with one being a mild level of distraction and five being the highest. According to AAA, a mental distraction rating of two or higher represents a potential danger to safe driving.

The AAA Foundation compared its cognitive rating system to five activities:

  • Category 1 mental distraction is about the same as listening to the radio or an audio book
  • Category 2 distraction is about the same as talking on the phone
  • Category 3 is equivalent to sending voice-activated texts on a perfect, error-free system
  • Category 4 is similar to updating social media while driving
  • Category 5 corresponds to a highly-challenging, scientific test designed to overload a driver’s attention

The Chevrolet Equinox performed the best, with a cognitive distraction of 2.4. The Mazda 6’s system required the most concentration, resulting in a rating of 4.6.

Voice activated phone systems were worse, at best, but better at worst. While talking on the phone, the best, Google Now, had a distraction rating of 3.0. Apple Siri earned a 3.4 and Microsoft Cortana had a 3.8.

Using voice-activated text functions “significantly increased” the level of distraction, according to the study. “Using the phones to send texts significantly increased the level of mental distraction. While sending voice-activated texts, Google Now rated as a category 3.3 distraction, while Apple Siri and Microsoft Cortana rated as category 3.7 and category 4.1 distractions.”

“Developers should aim to reduce mental distractions by designing systems that are no more demanding than listening to the radio or an audiobook,” continued Mr. Albert. “Given that the impairing effects of distraction may last much longer than people realize, AAA advises consumers to use caution when interacting with these technologies while behind the wheel.”

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at