Study warns wifi devices dangerous in cars

Researchers in Canada warn that fitting wifi devices to cars could be dangerous, even if they are voice-operated.

Professor Ian Spence of the University of Toronto says:

“Many people assume that talking to a voice-operated device will be as safe as using a hands-free cell phone, but neither activity is safe.”

The study, titled How Speech Modifies Visual Attention, which is published in the latest issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology, follows recent announcements by the Canadian telecommunications company Rogers Communications and American provider Sprint Corporation, of plans to fit high-speed Internet access in vehicles.

But Prof. Spence, a researcher in the Department of Psychology, says:

“Because of the potential for driver distraction, safety should be of great concern.”

In their study, he and his colleagues examined the effect of sound distractions on visual attention.

They asked volunteers to perform a visual test that required them again and again to look at a cluttered scene on a computer screen and identify a randomly located object. Such tests are used to assess driving performance.

They also tested the volunteers’ performance when they did the test while also doing some listening and/or speaking tasks of varying complexity.

For instance, a simple listening task was listening to recordings of news items – comparable to having the news on the radio while driving.

A more difficult task was answering yes or no to questions while doing the visual test.

The most difficult tasks asked them to take the last letter of a given word (such as “apple”) and then give a word beginning with that letter (for instance, “elephant”).

When answering questions, the volunteers in some cases were asked to speak their answers out loud, and at other times, they were asked just to think of the answer without speaking it.

Results showed that it did not matter whether the volunteers said the answers out loud or kept silent, their performance on the visual test they were doing at the same time (spotting the object in the clutter on the screen) was the same.

However, as the task they were asked to do at the same time as the visual test got more difficult, the slower they were at spotting the object on the screen. Also, as Prof. Spence explains:

“It did not matter whether the subject spoke the answer aloud or simply thought about the answer. It was the thinking, not speaking, that caused them to slow down.”

He says the implications for car drivers are clear.

For instance, at 50 km an hour (about 31 mph) your car will travel nearly 14 m in one second. When braking to avoid a crash, applying the brakes one second earlier could either prevent the collision completely or ensure you are travelling more slowly when it happens, thereby reducing the chance of severe injury or death.

Prof. Spence:

“A delay in braking by as much as one second presents a significant threat to safe driving and casts doubt on the belief that hands-free voice-controlled devices reduce driver distraction.”