By Steven Reinberg
WEDNESDAY, June 12 (HealthDay News) -- Drivers who think hands-free devices for talking or texting are safer than handheld cellphones are mistaken, a new report suggests.
Instead, devices such as speech-based technologies in cars can overload drivers, taking their attention from the road and making an accident more likely, experts say.
"Hands-free is not risk-free, even though three out of four motorists believe it is," said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "We know now that devices like voice-detect or voice-to-email systems can create substantial mental distractions, which can lead to degradation of driving performance."
Each day in the United States, more than nine people are killed and more than 1,000 are injured in crashes that involve a distracted driver, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Brains aren't wired to multi-task, Kissinger said. "It's virtually impossible for the brain to do two complex things at the same time," he said.
Multi-tasking can lead to "inattention blindness," he said, which occurs when people are concentrating on one thing and don't see other things going on around them.
"You can literally look at something and not see it," he said. "We have seen that situation occur in the real world. We have seen people being engrossed in a cellphone conversation and run right through a red light and afterwards don't even remember seeing the red light."
Released Wednesday, the new report was prepared for AAA by researchers from the department of psychology at the University of Utah.
They tested drivers in a variety of ways with a range of distractions including listening to the radio, conversing with a passenger, talking on handheld phones and using hands-free devices. The researchers looked at reaction time, both in lab simulators and on the road, Kissinger said.
The researchers found that reaction time slows and brain function is compromised as mental workload and distractions increase. Drivers check the road less and miss cues that can result in not seeing things right in front of them, such as stop signs and pedestrians.
Behaviors like listening to the radio were a very mild mental distraction, which researchers classified as a level-one distraction, Kissinger said. Voice-activated technology, however, was very distracting at level three, which is considered the highest risk.
Another expert said inattentive driving existed before the era of electronic devices -- hands-free or otherwise.
"Distracted driving is a big problem on the road, but it has always been a big problem, even before cellphones and other electronic devices came along," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Even so, researchers expected to see a wave of crashes as electronic devices proliferated, but the opposite is happening on the road: Police-reported crashes have been on the decline."
"[However], this doesn't mean that electronic devices aren't distracting," Rader said. "Every study, including this new one, demonstrates that they are distracting. It does mean we need to better understand how drivers are integrating these systems into the driving task."
A CDC expert agreed that hands-free devices don't solve the problem of distracted driving.
"Hand-free devices may take away some of the visual and physical distractions that come with handling or dialing a phone, but we can't say that hands-free is risk-free, because there is still a mental distraction," said Rebecca Naumann, an epidemiologist at the CDC's Injury Center.
'"You still have the distraction that your mind is taken off of the driving," she said. "Anything that takes your hands off the wheel or your mind off the road poses a risk to safety."
"Drivers should commit to distraction-free driving," Naumann said.
Distracted driving "has real consequences," Kissinger said. "We should heed that and minimize all the distractions while driving. Keep our hands on the wheel and our eyes on the road and, most importantly, keep our mind on driving."
Despite the risks, AAA is not calling for a ban on these devices, but is starting to work with car makers to find ways to make in-car voice and text systems safer.
Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, added that "our expectation is that in-vehicle systems will improve and thus become safer. Our advice to drivers is to not use any type of cellphone while driving."