AAA: Hand-free Apps Aren’t Safe

You may be distracted long after your car stops talking to you.

Practice may never make perfect, at least not when it comes to voice-activated systems in the latest cars.

A new AAA study commissioned by the University of Utah found that drivers using voice commands are distracted long after the car’s robotic speech quiets down. For how long? Up to 27 seconds.

A total of 257 drivers between ages 21 and 70 (average age 44, split among genders) tested nine infotainment systems in popular mid-size 2015 sedans like the Chrysler 200, Hyundai Sonata and Nissan Altima. Each driver became familiar with the system’s operation for a one-week practice session, after which the researchers compared mental loads on a five-point scale (one for just driving, and five for a standardized series of math and memory tests—man, are we glad we weren’t chosen). The drivers, hooked up to eye-tracking cameras and other sensors, were given six tasks, such as changing music tracks or dialing a phone contact.


The results? On the road, traveling at just 25 mph, the least-distracting systems—Chevrolet MyLink in an Equinox SUV and Toyota Entune in a 4Runner SUV—left drivers “impaired for more than 15 seconds after completing a task.” The worst, such as Hyundai BlueLink in the Sonata and Mazda Connect in the 6 sedan, showed levels of lingering distraction for even longer. All systems were rated between 2.4 (MyLink) and 4.6 (Mazda), and all of them, says AAA, are potentially dangerous to use while driving.

“We’ve known that hands-free is not risk-free, but this shows your brain continues to be distracted,” says John Paul, senior manager for traffic safety at AAA Northeast. “At 60 mph, you’re doing 89 feet a second. Even if your brain was out of the game for three to four seconds, you’ve traveled 400 feet without paying attention.”


Older drivers above 54 were more distracted than young and middle-aged drivers. When drivers used their phones for voice commands, such as Google Now, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, distraction was still considered high (between 3.0 and 3.8). But when using voice-activated texting, the results were even worse (3.3 to 4.1).

Voice command systems differ across practically every manufacturer. They’ve also improved in accuracy, input speed (such as natural dictation of addresses, for example) and response time. But across the board, they’re still nowhere accurate or fast enough as talking to a real person or using physical buttons to quickly call up a radio station. Worse, the distraction levels rated by AAA were for hands-free systems. On some new cars, the display screen’s menus, submenus and sub-sub menus are beyond comprehension even on an open road.

Stay sharp out there, friends.