Texting and Driving with Siri Might Not Be So Safe

If you absolutely must send a text message while driving, you may be no better off using Siri or other voice software than you would typing the message by hand.

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REUTERS/STEVE MARCUS

If you absolutely must send a text message while driving, you may be no better off using Siri or other voice software than you would typing the message by hand.

That’s the conclusion from Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute, which measured voice-to-text programs’ effect on distracted driving. Although drivers in Texas A&M’s study felt safer when using a program like Siri, they still reacted as slowly as they did when texting manually, and were just as likely to take their eyes off the road ahead.

The study’s findings were based on a closed-course driving test with 43 participants, both male and female, of all ages. Most of the participants said they already text while driving, which isn’t a surprise considering that almost half of commuters admitted to the habit in a recent AT&T survey.

Each participant drove the course four times: once without texting, once while typing text messages, once with Siri on an iPhone and once with Vlingo on a Samsung Android phone. The texting test included sending new messages as well as reading and replying to incoming messages.

Drivers were roughly twice as slow to respond to events while texting, regardless of whether they were texting by voice or by typing, the study found. Compared to when they weren’t texting, the drivers also spent close to ten seconds less time with their eyes forward. The drivers did manage to stay in their lanes in all cases, at least.

“You’re still using your mind to try to think of what you’re trying to say, and that by proxy causes some driving impairment, and that decreases your response time,” Christine Yager, who headed the study, told Reuters.

Here’s the kicker: not only were voice-to-text applications just as distracting, they were also slower, due to the time it takes to activate voice commands and, in the case of Siri, have the message read back. However, Siri did prove more accurate than trying to type out a message from behind the wheel.

In the study, Yager cautions that these results are just part of the larger process of figuring out how to make roads safer, and that more research on the subject is needed. The fact that the drivers were on a closed course with simulated distraction events it’s tricky to say how the results would translate to the real world.

But anecdotally, the study’s conclusion seems reasonable to me. I’ve used Siri and Google voice commands to dictate text messages, and it still feels distracting to me, largely because the technology introduces its own distractions. Sometimes the signal isn’t good enough, or the transcription isn’t accurate enough, prompting you to fiddle with the phone to start over. Clearly dictating the message, in a way that the device can understand, takes more brain power, which means less attention to the road. Using voice-to-text might not be distracting in the same way as typing manually, but it can still be pretty distracting.

Still, banning these technologies isn’t the answer. If anything, we need voice-to-text to be faster and more reliable, and for more auto makers to integrate smartphone functionality into their vehicles. (More Siri buttons, please.) Sending a text message should be as effortless as talking to the passenger next to you. It would still count as a distraction, but one that’s no worse than eating, dealing with a child in the backseat or fiddling with the radio — none of which have been demonized as much as technological distractions.

9 comments
goodjacy
goodjacy

This article was so good! Until the last paragraph. We have this study telling us it's about what our brains are doing, not where our hands are, and the author admitting that he still feels distracted while using voice to text, but if only the voice to text were better - then we'd all be safe! Show me that study and then you can write the last paragraph, but the last paragraph contradicts the entire rest of the article.

Sending a text message will NEVER be as effortless as talking to the person next to you because the person next to you has eyes in the car with you. You can read their body language and get innuendos that can never be transmitted with text.  

And while I very much agree that all distractions you mention are dangerous - eating, dealing with a child in the backseat or fiddling with the radio, there is a very logical reason  reason  they have not been demonized as much as technological distractions. Food, radios, and children are not the reason for thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries every year like we KNOW cell phones are. You write the article reporting on the study and then you draw your own conclusions to fit the way you want to live your life. I guess I'll just have to hope our paths never cross on the road.

luigicappel
luigicappel

I came to a similar conclusion after trying Siri to listen to and respond to a text message while I was driving. To a degree it was because I was worried about whether the txt I sent out was going to the right person and that it wasn't garbled. That meant looking at my iPhone which was mounted hanging off the cigarette lighter socket, not a great spot to be glancing down out while driving. 

Technically legal as throughout the process I did not touch my mobile, I activated Siri from my handsfree kit. Process based thinking is more complex, particularly when you are not thoroughly familiar with Siri, than talking to a person next to you in the car. Talking via car kit on your mobile also takes more focus and therefore less awareness of what is going on in the car. When you are also focussed on telling Siri to read a message to you, to compose a message, to ensure the message is accurate and then sending it, is even more involved. IMHO less dangerous than sending a TXT message by tapping on the screen, but still not safe. 

I wouldn't have a problem doing this at a red light and it would be legal, but otherwise would have to consider what is more important  the message or road safety. 

HakkaLugi
HakkaLugi

Thank you, Jared, for perpetuating an almost epidemic public health crisis.  If people absolutely need to communicate w/ their device they should just pull over and not endanger us or or slow us down by falling out of sync w/ traffic

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

 Sending a text message should be as effortless as talking to the passenger next to you.

Why?

newmanjb
newmanjb

@HakkaLugi These days a significant number of people (nearly half of commuters according to an AT&T survey) admit to texting while driving, despite an increasing number of laws and public awareness campaigns against it. I'm flattered that you think I'm somehow the one who's perpetuating it.

In seriousness, I'm not sure how you figure people will change their ways if you simply wish it to be.

newmanjb
newmanjb

@PaulDirks Because people are going to do it anyway. Add as many laws as you want. It's not helping.

newmanjb
newmanjb

@HakkaLugi Once again, I'm flattered, but doubtful that a stern talking-to aimed at the relatively small number of people who visit this page is going affect driver behavior in any measurable way. Heck, Oprah tried it a couple years ago (look up the "no phone zone" pledge) and it hasn't stemmed the tide. I'm merely trying to open your mind to the idea that if technology helps texting become much less of a distraction than it is now, it will cease to be an epidemic health crisis, as you put it. I don't think people NEED to text while driving, but as long as the evidence keeps showing that people are doing it, I think we need a different solution than more laws and awareness campaigns.

HakkaLugi
HakkaLugi

In seriousness, the voice you wield in the mainstream media does indeed perpetuate the problem if you continue to make arguments for vehicle manufacturers to incorporate more tech into vehicles.  Also, your position to make it easier to text while driving is shameful.  Why not champion something to make the world a better place rather than arguing that you NEED to be able to text while you operate your 2800 - 6000 pound mass of steel and plastic down the road.  Serious.