Studies: Siri, other voice assistants ‘simply don’t work’ to avoid distracted driving

WASHINGTON — If you see someone talking while alone in the car, the driver may be speaking to his car or smartphone, but new studies show those devices are not as safe as many people think.

Technology makes it possible to search a phone’s contacts, make a phone call, send a text, or change music with voice commands, but two University of Utah studies show it takes up to 27 seconds to get your attention back to driving the car after issuing voice commands.

One study for AAA compared smartphone personal assistants, including Apple’s Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft Cortana.

Cortana caused the most distraction, followed by Siri. Google Now caused slightly less distraction.

The other study examined voice-activated “infotainment” systems built into 10 2015-model cars.

The vehicle causing the least distraction is the Chevy Equinox with MyLink. The most distracting built-in system was the Mazda 6’s Connect system.

Researchers at University of Utah says even though the personal assistants are billed as a safe alternative to manual operation of devices, the voice systems simply don’t work well enough yet.

“Just because these systems are in the car doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to use them while you are driving,” says University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer, senior author of the study.

“They are very distracting, very error prone and very frustrating to use,” said Strayer, in the study.

The studies also showed older drivers — those most likely to buy cars with infotainment systems — are more distracted than younger drivers when giving voice commands.

In the most severe cases of distraction, the 27 seconds required to regain full attention mean a car traveling 25 mph would cover three football fields during the distraction.

Study co-author Joel Cooper says many of the systems allow drivers to interact with their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat accounts.

“We now are trying to entertain the driver rather than keep the driver’s attention on the road,” he said.

The studies were funded by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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