By Luigi Fraschini

Voice control can reduce driving distractions and promote driving safety.

How do we know?

A new Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) study shows that drivers can minimize visual distractions by using voice-controlled vehicle systems like Ford SYNC instead of operating hand-held cell phones and tuning music systems manually. The study by VTTI was released in Detroit at the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) World Congress during a panel discussion titled “Human Factors in Driving and Automotive Telematics.”

In the new Ford-commissioned study, 21 drivers, ages 19 to 51, who were familiar with SYNC drove a Mercury Mariner while initiating a call, selecting music tracks and having phone conversations using the hands-free, voice-controlled system. For the purpose of comparison, the participants also completed the same tasks manually using their own mobile phones and portable music players in the same vehicle. The study concluded that drivers were able to dial and complete other tasks more quickly and with less eyes-off-road time when using voice-activated SYNC system. At the same time, drivers manually operating phones and digital music players steered more erratically and looked away from the roadway for longer periods of time.

“This study suggests that keeping drivers’ eyes on the road as much as possible is important for maintaining safe vehicle control, which is in line with recent naturalistic driving research,” said Shane McLaughlin, research scientist, Center for Automotive Safety Research, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

When study participants initiated a call, hand-held operation required more than two and a half times as many glances away from the road and more than four times longer in total eyes-off-road time than when drivers used the voice-activated system. For MP3 player song s election, hand-held operation required more than six times as many task-related glances than SYNC and took more than 10 times longer in total eyes-off-road time.

VTTI’s new study is consistent with the groundbreaking 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study, completed in 2005 for the U.S. Department of Transportation. The study followed 109 drivers for one year and tracked more than 42,300 hours of driving data collected with over 2 million miles driven. It concluded that manually dialing a hand-held device while driving -- a task that requires looking away from the road -- was almost 2.8 times riskier than normal driving. The study also showed that talking and listening on a phone while driving has a similar risk to normal driving.

Luigi Fraschini Cleveland-based Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini writes frequently about driving safety issues.



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