It appeared that technology might have solved a problem of its own creation when voice-activated texting came along so that drivers could keep their eyes on the road. Not so, says the first major study of the subject.
It’s every bit as dangerous for a driver to speak into a mobile device that translates words into a text message as it is to type one.
“It didn’t really matter which texting method you were using, your reaction times were twice as slow and your eyes were on the road much less often,” said Christine Yager, who did the research for the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.
With Americans swapping 6.1 billion text messages every day, several mobile-application developers came up with voice-to-text software. Yager tested two developed for the popular iPhone and Android devices as drivers performed tests on a closed course.
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“We were using a tracker, measuring how often they looked at the roadway and how long it took the driver to complete each text-messaging task that we asked them to do, and we also were looking at how long it took them to respond to (a) light that turned on periodically,” she said.
The finding: Voice-to-text applications “do not increase driver safety compared to manual texting.”
“We aren’t surprised,” said Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “Anything that takes the driver’s concentration away from driving is a potential distraction. Our message to drivers is to hold off on sending a text until the car is parked.”
Using a handheld device to tap out a text message while driving has been banned in the District of Columbia and 39 states, including Washington state. The District of Columbia and 10 states, including Washington, also prohibit use of handheld devices for almost all purposes while driving.
In a survey released this year, almost 35 percent of drivers told the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety that they had recently read text messages or email while driving, and 26 percent said they had sent a text message.
About 3,300 people a year die in crashes attributed to distracted driving, and 387,000 others were injured in 2011, federal data show.
For the study, Yager recruited people who were familiar with sending and receiving texts, and some of them already were using voice-to-text applications.
“One of the common comments was that they felt an inclination to look down at the screen to see if it heard them correctly, so that could be one possible explanation of why they were not looking at the roadway more frequently,” Yager said.
She said drivers said they felt safer when using voice-activated texting than when keying in the messages.
“Perhaps it is because they view it as safer and therefore it must be, but still they have this inclination to look down at the screen,” she said. “We found that their driving performance suffered equally with both methods.”
As has been proven in studies of cellphone conversations, Yager said, drivers engaged in any form of texting were distracted by the communication effort.
“Any of these types of activities that are not about driving have the potential of seriously taking your mind off what you’re doing in operating that vehicle.”