Determining whether oSmart Cars, Smart Designr not “smart” automobiles are distracting depends largely on who you ask. If you ask consumers, as was done in the 2012 Traffic Safety Culture Index by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (AAAFTS), 71% of drivers believe that hands-free devices are safer than hand-held ones, and over 50% of those same people don’t believe that speech-based systems are at all distracting. If you ask car manufacturers, they will claim voice systems are completely safe alternatives that allow a driver to navigate, communicate, or enjoy social media without distraction.

A research study done by the AAAFTS seems to suggest something completely different, and you may be surprised at the results. In summary, hands-free is just as bad and, in some cases, worse than using a hand-held device. Just because your eyes are on the road doesn’t mean you’re paying attention. Using multiple modes of assessment, the study evaluated six tasks that are common for modern automobiles:

  • Listening to the radio
  • Listening to a book on tape
  • Talking to a passenger
  • Talking on a hand-held device
  • Talking on a hands-free device
  • Interacting with a speech-to-text email system


These tasks, along with variables within each test, were rated by how much distraction they caused, from low to high. Listening to the radio or some other recording proved to be only slightly above the baseline for cognitive distraction and counted as “non-distracted” for results.

More importantly, and of no small concern, were the results which indicated speaking on a phone (hands-free or hand-held) and interacting with a speech-to-text system were highly distracting to cognitive ability. Of the systems tested, Siri, Apple’s intelligent personal assistant, was actually the most distracting, though several other were not much better.

Over half the people on the road believe their voice-based systems are perfectly safe and not at all distracting to them. Another 21% admit the systems may be slightly distracting, but much less so than using a hand-held device. That’s 71% of drivers using voice-enabled systems who believe they are still mostly or completely focused on driving. That’s scary.

With more and more technology being put into vehicles, the cognitive distraction has the potential to grow right along with it. Thankfully, the human-machine interface (HMI) will improve as well, enabling more accurate audio and providing other methods of control and interaction not yet conceived by present day innovators.