Your Eyes Are on the Road and Hands Are on the Wheel -- but Where's Your Head?

Do you think that using a hands-free device is the safe alternative to driving while holding your phone or fidgeting with your car’s controls? If so, you’re not alone. Our latest safety culture index survey found that 71 percent of U.S. drivers think hands-free devices are safer than their hand-held counterparts, and more than half of American motorists who routinely use speech-based in-vehicle systems (e.g., stereo, navigation, text/email, etc.) do not believe these technologies are at all distracting.

Today, however, the AAA Foundation is challenging these perceptions with brand-new research on mental distractions, and the suppressed brain activity and impaired driving performance of motorists who are engaged in cognitively-demanding tasks – even when they keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

Conducted at the University of Utah, this study utilized a combination of brainwave activity measures, driving performance indicators, and other assessments, and analyzed participants in a laboratory, driving simulator, and instrumented vehicle as they completed six common tasks: listening to the radio, listening to a book on tape, conversing with a passenger, conversing on a hand-held phone, conversing on a hands-free phone, and interacting with a speech-to-text email system. Researchers then created a rating scale that ranks these tasks according to how much mental distraction they cause, and the findings may surprise you.

It is perhaps reassuring that listening to the radio or a book on tape create only minor increases in cognitive workload above the baseline, “non-distracted” condition. Much more troubling, however, is the fact that phone conversations (whether hand-held or hands-free) and voice-based interactions with in-vehicle systems create significant levels of cognitive distraction, as demonstrated by suppressed brain activity, slowed reaction times, missed visual cues, and reduced visual scanning of the driving environment (think tunnel vision). Keep in mind that these degradations were found even though drivers kept their eyes on the road and, with the exception of the hand-held phone task, their hands on the wheel.

Succinctly put: “hands-free” doesn’t mean “risk free.”

This seemingly-simple conclusion has broad implications that give all of us a great deal to consider. For example, more than half of American motorists think that hands-free device use while driving is acceptable (while two thirds say hand-held devices are unacceptable). The perception that “hands-free” is the safe way to go may also help to explain the proliferation of speech-based in-vehicle technologies and infotainment systems. Though shipments of these systems are expected to skyrocket in the coming years, use of speech-to-text communications presented the highest level of cognitive distraction of all the tasks we analyzed. This suggests there is much work to be done to ensure that these systems do not interfere with the safe operation of motor vehicles.    

This is an issue that we will continue to study, and we hope you will take some time to learn about cognitive distraction and how it may impact your driving. Please visit and to learn more, and remember the three keys to attentive driving: eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, mind on the task.