The Garden City Telegram
6/17/2013
OPINIONS AND COMMENTARY

Risky path

Even hands-free technology poses risk while on the road.

You don't have to look far to see evidence of the problem.

Practically everyone has observed motorists weaving, slowing down or otherwise driving erratically while talking on a cell phone or engaging in some other distracting activity behind the wheel.

And while it's easy to see how cell phone use steals attention from the road and can pose a serious threat, the problem goes beyond that particular hazard.

New statistics on distracted driving prove drivers face dangerous mental distractions even when they keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.

Findings from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety show that even though hands-free technologies make it easier for motorists to text, talk on the phone, or even use social media while driving, those acts still are distractions that could slow reaction times and cause motorists to miss stop signs and pedestrians in their path, among other potentially dangerous traffic situations.

Researchers studied brainwaves, eye movement and other metrics to assess what happens to drivers' mental workload when they try to do multiple things at once.

They ranked risks, and found the following:

* Tasks such as listening to the radio ranked as a category "1" level of distraction, or a minimal risk.

* Talking on a cell phone, both hand-held and hands-free, resulted in a "2" or a moderate risk.

* Listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features increased mental workload and distraction levels of the drivers to a "3" rating, or an extensive risk.

Distracted driving already is blamed in more than 10 percent of fatal accidents nationwide, and nearly 20 percent of all injury accidents. Those numbers will increse sharply without changes designed to steer drivers away from such acts as voice-activated texting and social networking.

While education is key, disabling devices when the car is not in motion is among strategies worthy of consideration.

Either way, the message is clear: If we're to be safer on the road, it's time to slow down and consider the danger ahead when it comes to incorporating technologies that turn drivers' attention away from the road.