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It’s been repeatedly drilled into us: Texting and driving don’t mix. But new research has found that texting at a red light and talking to your car’s hands-free technology can be just as distracting.
Researchers from the University of Utah conducted two new studies on distracted driving for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and discovered that issuing voice commands to your car’s infotainment system and texting at a red light can distract a driver for up to 27 seconds after using either device.
Both studies had more than 300 participants combined drive various cars at 25 miles per hour or less around a 2.7 mile route as they used the car’s voice commands to dial numbers, call people, and change the radio station, or used voice commands to text, choose music, and call contacts on their smartphones.
Researchers rode in the cars and tested drivers on the extent of their distraction. Videos also measured how often they kept their eyes on the road, mirrors, or dashboard, and drivers completed surveys after each driving test on how distracted they felt while driving.
The level of distraction varied depending on how easy each system or phone’s voice-activated commands were to use. Car infotainment systems that were moderately perplexing caused up to 15 seconds of distraction after the drivers disconnected, while those that were more difficult to use caused distraction for up to 27 seconds after disconnecting.
Researchers also found that all three major smartphone personal assistants (Google Now, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft Cortana) were highly distracting or very highly distracting for drivers, even when used at a red light.
More than 3,000 people were killed in 2013 in car accidents related to distracted driving, and another 424,000 were injured, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports.
Despite the known dangers, distracted driving is a big problem for Americans. A 2014 survey of 1,000 drivers by The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and AT&T found that 75 percent of people who text every day text while driving, even though they know it’s dangerous.
The majority of states in the U.S. have banned texting while driving, and many car manufacturers have added new hands-free features to try to meet the demand.
But lead study author David Strayer, PhD, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah, tells Yahoo Health that these new features may not be helping.
“Just because it’s in the car, doesn’t mean it’s safe to use,” he says.
We’re distracted after using technology while driving for two reasons, he says. The first is frustration with the workload it can take to get the car’s infotainment system or our smartphones to do what we actually want them to do.
The second is that we’re really just not great at multitasking. “When we try to do all of these things and then immediately focus on driving, driving suffers,” Strayer says.
While texting at a red light seems like a safer option, Strayer says it still can cause “high levels of distraction that persist for a long time after you put down the phone.” This is especially dangerous, he says, because we often do red light-texting before heading into an intersection, where we need to be highly aware of all of our surroundings. “That’s the worst place to have that level of distraction,” he says.
Strayer says some hands-free features are helpful, like GPS (provided you set it before driving), but encourages people to really test out a car’s infotainment system before buying it. “If the system is problematic and errorsome, you’re going to still have problems down the road,” he says.
As for texting at red lights, he recommends taking a moment to think about how important that text really is. If it can wait, it should.
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