If you're addicted to texting and believe you're bypassing danger behind the wheel by using voice-activated apps like Vlingo or Siri, think again.
A new study by researchers at Texas A&M, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Transportation, found that drivers on a closed course at a former Air Force base were just as distracted by texting without taking their hands off the wheel as they would be holding their phones.
Two Times Slower
The 43 participants, all licensed U.S. drivers over 16, drove specially outfitted vehicles that monitored their performance during standard driving (to establish a baseline); while texting manually and while sending and receiving texts, using Siri -- available only on the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 -- and using Vlingo, a personal assistant app available on a range of platforms.
In each case, the drivers were told to keep the speedometer at 30 mph and respond to the appearance of a green LED light on the dashboard by pressing a button, simulating response to a sudden obstacle. The test also assessed how well each software detects the driver's speech, so the participants were asked to send messages that included errors as well as accurate ones.
The test recorded response times, eye gazes to the forward roadway, accuracy of and length of time to complete each message and self assessment of driving.
"Compared to the baseline condition, driver response times were approximately two times slower in any of the three texting conditions, no matter which texting method was used," said the report's executive summary.
"The mean percentages of eye gazes to the forward roadway were significantly fewer, no matter which texting method was used, when compared to the baseline condition. On average, driver speeds slowed during any of the three texting conditions when compared to the baseline, with the manual texting condition having more speed fluctuations than all other driving conditions."
Comparing both voice-activated methods to manual texting, the researchers found that they required more time to complete each message, meaning a longer distraction. But those methods were more accurate than manual texting, with Apple's popular Siri scoring fewer errors than the competition.
In their self-assessment feedback, participants said they felt less safe in any texting scenario than when driving without distraction, but contrary to the data, felt the voice assistants amounted to more safety, allowing better driving.
Hands-Free Not Risk Free
"[A]s with any research, there is need to investigate this relationship further," said the report, which was sponsored by the college's Southwest Region University Transportation Center.
"However, it was clear that driving performance suffered in any of the texting conditions compared to the baseline condition, which means that texting is not an activity that should be coupled with driving."
Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association in New York, said the study "confirms what we've been saying all along, that hands-free is not risk free. It seems everyone is aware of the dangers of distractions, but few apply the lessons to themselves. Texting is indeed very dangerous and drivers should refrain from it unless they're parked."