“Hands-free” cell phone technology and the ability to give voice commands to your vehicle while driving may be exacerbating the very problems they were designed to address. These new technologies were intended to free drivers from having to push buttons or press knobs, thus reducing driver distraction while allowing them to interact with cell phones and use vehicle accessories, giving voice commands.  Far from making it safer to “multi-task” while driving, however, the new technology is causing even greater levels of driver distraction, lasting for even longer periods of time – creating even more serious auto and truck safety hazards.

That’s the conclusion of a new research study from the American Auto Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety. The study looked at In-Vehicle Information Systems (IVIS) on ten different current model vehicles, involving 257 drivers, aged 21 to 70.  Researchers studied the effects of IVIS interactions on drivers’ ability to focus and their impacts on driver distraction.

Tests were carried out on vehicles equipped with a variety of systems and apps from Apple, Microsoft and Google. The results were disturbing. The study found that the “cognitive workload” (a measure of mental energy and effort, or “busyness”) was “moderate to high” – up to 4.57 on a 5-point scale. Furthermore, older drivers (50 and over) experienced a much higher cognitive workload than young ones when performing the same tasks.

Driver distraction is defined as the amount of time required for the operator of a motor vehicle to re-focus on traffic and road conditions following an interaction. Distraction can linger for a significant period after the driver completes the interaction with a vehicle IVIS. Simple voice commands can distract a driver for up to fifteen seconds. More complex interactions, such as searching for a radio station or calling specific contacts on a cell phone, could take driver focus away from the road for nearly half a minute after completion of the task.

Consider that at 60 miles per hour, a 2500-pound vehicle is traveling at approximately 100 feet per second and requires up to six car lengths to come to a stop.

According to University of Utah neuroscientist David Strayer, who led the study, using IVIS technology is the cognitive equivalent of “balancing a checkbook while driving…when you hang up, you have to figure out where you are, how fast you’re going, where other vehicles are.”

Peter Kissinger, CEO of the Foundation for Traffic Safety, points out that many drivers are not even aware of the risks: “The lasting effects of mental distraction pose a hidden and pervasive danger that would likely come as a surprise to most drivers.”

What is even more frightening is that automakers and tech firms are touting IVIS and similar technologies as “safe.” Safety advocates are saying that such manufacturers are motivated by profits, not safety concerns, as these high-tech options can raise the sticker price significantly. These corporations do not care. Even more distracting technology is in the pipeline. Earlier this year, the New York Times ran a story about a “heads up display device” that projects data from a smartphone onto the windshield. People can text, talk on the phone and even chat with their social media friends while behind the wheel. According to carmakers and technology companies, it can all be done without compromising safety. Neuroscientists involved in the recent study on driving and cognitive distraction beg to disagree.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.