Using voice commands to send text messages and emails from behind the wheel, which is marketed as a safer alternative for drivers, actually is more distracting and dangerous than simply talking on a cellphone, the Canadian Automobile Association has found.

An intensive research project underwritten by CAA partner, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, found that cognitive distraction is real. In other words, activities ranging from listening to the radio to engaging with text-to-audio software distract the brain from focusing on the road, even if physically drivers are doing what they should.

The research, released today, was conducted by a team at the University of Utah. They used medical technology and driving simulators to measure what actually happens inside the brain while drivers were asked to perform a range of tasks such as listening to an audio book.

Research findings showed that reaction times are slowed, brain function is compromised and motorists often miss potential environmental cues such as stop signs, pedestrians or other cars while engaged in mentally distracting tasks.

The researchers found that speech-to-text systems that enable drivers to send, scroll through, or delete email and text messages required greater concentration by drivers than other potentially distracting activities examined in the study like talking on the phone, talking to a passenger, listening to a book on tape or listening to the radio.

The greater the concentration required to perform a task, the more likely a driver is to develop what researchers call "tunnel vision" or "inattention blindness." Drivers will stop scanning the roadway or ignore their side and review mirrors. Instead, they look straight ahead, but fail to see what's in front of them, like red lights and pedestrians.

Public safety crisis 'looming'

"People aren't seeing what they need to see to drive. That's the scariest part to me," said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the group's safety research arm.

"Police accident investigative reports are filled with comments like the 'looked, but did not see.' That's what drivers tell them. We used to think they were lying, but now we know that's actually true."

There are about nine million cars and trucks on the road with infotainment systems, and that will jump to about 62 million vehicles by 2018, AAA spokeswoman Yolanda Cade said, citing automotive industry research. At the same time, drivers tell the AAA they believe phones and other devices are safe to use behind the wheel if they are hands-free, she said.

"We believe there is a public safety crisis looming," Cade said. "We hope this study will change some widely held misconceptions by motorists."

AAA officials who briefed automakers, safety advocates and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the study's findings said they want to limit in-vehicle, voice-driven technologies to "core driving tasks."

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers was skeptical. "We are extremely concerned that it could send a misleading message, since it suggests that hand-held and hands-free devices are equally risky," the association said in a statement.

The automakers' trade group said the AAA study focuses only on the mental distraction posed by using a device and ignores the visual and manual aspects of hand-held versus hands-free systems that are integrated into cars.

Brainwaves measured

Researchers at Utah who conducted the study for the AAA measured the brainwaves, eye movement, driving performance and other indicators of 32 university students as they drove and performed a variety of secondary tasks, ranging from listening to music to sending emails.

Cameras were mounted inside the car to track drivers' eye and head movements. A device that drivers pressed was used to record their reaction time to red and green lights introduced to their field of vision. Drivers were fitted with a special skull cap to record their brain activity.

One reason using voice commands is so much more distracting for drivers, even though they aren't using their hands, is that they often require more concentration than simply speaking to another person, said University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer, an expert on cognitive distraction and lead author of the study. Talking to a computer requires far greater precision than talking to a person, he said. Otherwise, "Call home" may get you Home Depot.

Another difference: In phone conversations, a person who is listening will give indications that they agree with what the speaker has said or have heard what was said. Computers don't provide that feedback.

"The complexity of trying to say something that is coherent when there is no feedback is much more difficult," Strayer said. "And the more complex and the longer those interactions are, the more likely you are going to have impairments when you're driving," Strayer said.