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Many drivers think voice-activated technology is harmless (or even helpful), but new research shows it can be another source of distraction.

Rachel Swalin
October 09, 2014

That fancy voice-activated technology in your new car is safer than using your hands to dial your phone or change the song, right? After all, you don't even have to take your eyes off the road!

New research, though, puts a damper on that: Hands-free systems in cars can still increase mental distraction while driving, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety concluded in a recent report. And distracted driving is a serious problem: about 420,000 people were injured in car crashes involving a distracted driver in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In one study in the report, researchers from the University of Utah used heart-rate monitors and other equipment to test the reaction times of more than 40 people while driving. They rated various tasks using hands-free technology with 1 being the least troublesome and 5 being the most. To put that in context: previous AAA research put listening to the radio as a category 1 distraction, while talking on a cell phone (either hand-held or hands-free) resulted in a category 2, for example.

They found that voice-activated programs were most likely to distract drivers when there was a misunderstanding between human and machine. For instance, you might say "call Mom," but the software dials someone named "John" (and then reports an error because maybe you don't know anyone named John!) When you have to repeat yourself or go through extra steps, it can keep you from focusing on the road, so the researchers scored the glitchy programs as a 3.

Interestingly, dictating or just listening to entire text messages and emails—even if there weren't any errors—also scored a 3.

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Even worse was Apple's Siri, which scored a 4 on the researchers' distraction scale. While she may be a lifesaver when you're on foot, dictating social media updates, texts, and new calendar events on the road is just dangerous, according to the report.

RELATED: 7 Ways Social Media Messes With Your Mind

Another team of researchers from Precision Driving Research tested the systems used in real-life cars on the same five-point scale, and found that some were better than others. Chevrolet My Link software scored the worst for distraction at a 3.7. The best was Toyota's Entune, scoring a 1.7 (which the researchers compared to listening to an audiobook). They also tested the Hyundai Blue Link (2.2), the Chrysler Uconnect (2.7), Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch (3.0), and the Mercedes COMAND (3.1).

While AAA remains optimistic about voice-activated systems becoming safer in the future, for now it seems the best advice is to make use of them before putting your foot on the pedal. While you drive, focus on what really needs your attention: the road.

RELATED: 5 Reasons You Can't Concentrate

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