Voice activated devices prove distracting

Study shows systems such as Apple’s Siri are not a safe alternative to texting


Do not Siri and drive. New research shows that serious distraction can result when drivers use Siri, Apple's voice-activation system, to navigate, send and receive texts, use Facebook or Twitter. Siri, it turns out, is not a safe alternative to texting-and-driving, even when a driver doesn't use the phone.

And the distraction risks happen with other voice-activated technologies, which are becoming more commonplace in cars, according to the research, sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The research, conducted at the University of Utah, found that most distracting voice-activating systems flustered drivers to the point of them "cursing the systems out" for misunderstanding words and commands, said David Strayer, a neuroscientist with the University of Utah who led the research.

At one point, Strayer said, someone testing one of the voice-activated systems “tried to change the radio and it instead changed the temperature in the car.” But there is some potential good news for these systems, according to the new research. It found that some car maker voice-activation solutions, in particular Toyota’s Entune system and Hyundai’s Blue Link system, are proving less distracting than those offered by competitors.


Those examples show “these systems can be designed so they aren’t very distracting to drivers,” Strayer said in a statement. Given these systems “are here to stay,” he said, the goal is to make them “no more distracting than listening to the radio.”

The Toyota system, for example, proved to be about as distracting as listening to a book on tape. But others, like ones offered by Mercedes, proved far more distracting than using a handheld cellphone. Of all the systems studied, Siri proved the most distracting, more so than even using "an error prone voice-based menu system." In the study, Siri was used by study subjects in a driving simulator, with the subjects wearing a microphone to interact with the system.

The latest studies - one on systems by specific car makers and the other on independent systems like Siri - follow research published last year that began to document the risks of voice-activated systems, which are becoming increasingly commonplace. The research also comes as a growing body of research shows that electronic devices can be habit forming, to the point of being addictive, making it hard for drivers to resist their use.

Automakers have said that they are catering to consumer demand to stay connected in their cars and doing so with voice-activated systems in a way that seeks to keep driver eyes focused on the road and hands clasped on the wheel. Many neuroscientists counter that the risks come also from “cognitive distraction,” which is that the brain becomes divided such that a driver is no longer focused on the road, and sometimes with deadly consequences.

Strayer said he ultimately hoped that voice-activation systems would wind up being used by drivers only to help with driving-related tasks, like controlling the temperature in the car, or perhaps tuning the radio. He does not think they should be used for social interaction, whether texting or even talking on the phone, which he said is not integral to driving.

“They should be basically for supporting the task of driving, not infotainment, not texting, not Facebook,” he said. They should help “keep the mind on driving.”

- The New York Times News Service