The More You Talk On—Or To—Your Phone, The Worse You Drive

Despite significant fines and common sense, we continue to text while driving. Given how much time we spend in our cars—as much as 7% of our lives by some estimates—not to mention our rising dependence on text-based communication, this isn't surprising. We want to make the most of otherwise dead time. (Though not literally. We hope.)

While app developers are flooding the market with speech-to-text products to give drivers a legal alternative to texting, new research suggests that text-to-speech technologies may not help, and could actually make things worse. 

Which may mean you may have no safe choice but pay attention to the road.

A Nation Addicted To Texting ... While Driving

I say this as someone prone to sneak in a quick text response while driving. So, no, I'm not judging you. And yes, I really do mean you. According to a study done by AT&T, 49% of adults text while driving, despite 98% of us knowing that it's unsafe to do so. For 40% of us, it's more than just an occasional text: it's a habit.

This despite some awesome campaigns that showcase just how bad we are at driving while we text.

Why do we do it? Well, we spend anywhere from 100 hours to 600 hours a year in our cars. That's a long time to spend staring at billboards on 101 or listening to the annual NPR fundraising drive. (Yes, it's coming.)

So we text. 

Speech-To-Text: Even Worse

Android comes with built-in speech-to-text capabilities, and I've watched a friend use this to "text" back and forth with his wife while driving me up 101 to San Francisco. It's pretty impressive. 

It's also even worse than texting, according to new research from a team at the University of Utah, under sponsorship from the not-for-profit AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. While texting gets the most attention, there are other forms of in-vehicle distractions that keep us from focusing on driving from Point A to Point B. Texting takes our eyes and hands off the road, but even while fully focusing our eyes and hands on the road, the AAA Foundation's report indicates that cognitive distractions can pose a serious risk to our driving abilities.

This is tough to measure, of course, because it's hard to know what people are (not) thinking while driving. As the report notes, following the lead from aviation psychology, the researchers used an eye tracker in conjunction with an incidental recognition memory paradigm to determine what information in the driving scene participants attended to while operating a vehicle. The researchers also evaluated brain waves, response times when braking and other factors.

They tested the following potential distractions: 

  • A baseline single-task condition (i.e., no concurrent secondary task);
  • Concurrent listening to a radio;
  • Concurrent listening to a book on tape;
  • Concurrent conversation with a passenger seated next to the participant;
  • Concurrent conversation on a hand-held cell phone;
  • Concurrent conversation on a hands-free cell phone;
  • Concurrent interaction with a speech-to-text interfaced e-mail system; and 
  • Concurrent performance with an auditory version of a complex math problem or puzzle.

The results? While doing a Google interview brain teaser may be most likely to send you into oncoming traffic, text-to-speech applications aren't far behind:

These results jibe with earlier research at Texas A&M, which also found that speech-to-text programs proved even more distracting than simple texting. This is due in part to drivers spending more time correcting flaws in the transcription. But more fundamentally it comes down to the thought required in communicating. We may be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but it appears we struggle to communicate and drive at the same time. At least, to people not sitting in the car with us.

What To Do?

Until Google's self-driving cars hit the mainstream, we're going to have to figure out a way to tame our compulsion to text while driving. As with drinking and driving, the easy solution may be to make it a criminal offense to text and drive. Of course, with drunk driving, there's still a BAC threshold that must be reached. What would be the equivalent in texting and driving? Three?

Is there another solution? Peer pressure likely won't work. Not with half of us sneaking a text in while we drive. Maybe we need more designated drivers, just so everyone else can fiddle with their phones.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock