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.