A debate is raging about taking and making hands-free calls behind the wheel. Some folks think the practice is perfectly safe, while others (like the National Transportation Safety Board) believe that all conversations are distracting, whether or not drivers hold a phone to their ear.
But what about other hands-free activities -- like dictating text messages to friends? A new study from the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University reveals that sending those messages using voice-to-text software is just as distracting as looking down at your phone and typing messages by hand.
To reach those conclusions, the Institute put 43 drivers on a test track and measured each on three separate tasks:
1. Driving without texting at all.
2. Driving while typing a text message on a cell phone.
3. Driving while dictating a text message using voice-to-text software.
The similarities between scenario #2 and #3 were striking. Eye-contact with the road declined in both cases, and although subject felt more comfortable dictating their messages than typing, their reaction times were the same in both situations. Most importantly, those reaction times were twice as long as when the subjects weren't texting at all.
As anyone who's used voice-to-text programs can attest, lead researcher Christine Yager noted that using dictation software to compose texts took more time than typing. That's largely due to the still-evolving state of that software, which doesn't always do a great job of transcribing. As a result, drivers had to spend considerable time correcting their dictated text messages before they sent them.
Yager explains her team's findings using language that the NTSB has used before: whether typing or speaking to a computer, "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".
Which only confirms what we've known for some time: when you're driving, you should probably focus on driving.