Media Releases

University of Toronto research warns against Wi-Fi in cars

October 17, 2013

Study shows drivers will be too distracted even if devices are voice-operated

TORONTO, ON – Plans to pro­vide high-speed Inter­net access in vehi­cles, announced last month by Cana­di­an telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­ny Rogers Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Amer­i­can provider Sprint Cor­po­ra­tion, could do with some sober­ing sec­ond-thought, says a researcher in the Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to.

“Because of the poten­tial for dri­ver dis­trac­tion, safe­ty should be of great con­cern,” said Pro­fes­sor Ian Spence, author of a new study on the impact of audi­to­ry dis­trac­tions on visu­al atten­tion. “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.”

Spence and a team of researchers asked sub­jects to per­form an atten­tion­al visu­al field test in which they repeat­ed­ly iden­ti­fied the ran­dom loca­tion of an object in visu­al clut­ter dis­played on a com­put­er mon­i­tor. Poor per­for­mance on the test is known to be a good pre­dic­tor of unsafe dri­ving. Sub­jects per­formed the test while car­ry­ing out a range of lis­ten­ing and/or speak­ing tasks or in silence.

An exam­ple of an easy task was lis­ten­ing to record­ings of news items, much like lis­ten­ing to a car radio. More dif­fi­cult tasks required sub­jects to answer sim­ple yes-no ques­tions while per­form­ing the visu­al test. Sub­jects answered by either speak­ing out loud in some exper­i­men­tal con­di­tions, or mere­ly think­ing of the answer in oth­ers. The most-demand­ing ques­tions required sub­jects to take the last let­ter of a pre­sent­ed word (e.g. apple) and speak anoth­er word begin­ning with that let­ter (e.g. ele­phant).

Sub­jects who com­plet­ed the test of visu­al atten­tion cou­pled with the listening/speaking tasks were as accu­rate as those who com­plet­ed the visu­al test in silence. How­ev­er, they respond­ed much more slow­ly as the dif­fi­cul­ty increased – as much as one sec­ond slow­er with the most demand­ing tasks.

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

Spence said the prac­ti­cal con­se­quences are clear.

“At 50 kilo­me­tres per hour, a car trav­els 13.9 metres in one sec­ond. A dri­ver who brakes one sec­ond ear­li­er than anoth­er dri­ver to avoid a col­li­sion, will either pre­vent it com­plete­ly or be trav­el­ling more slow­ly when it occurs, low­er­ing the prob­a­bil­i­ty of severe injury or fatal­i­ty. 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.”

The study “How speech mod­i­fies visu­al atten­tion” appears in the September/October issue of Applied Cog­ni­tive Psy­chol­o­gy. The research was fund­ed by a Dis­cov­ery Grant to Spence from the Nat­ur­al Sci­ences and Engi­neer­ing Research Coun­cil of Cana­da.

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For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Prof. Ian Spence
Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

Sean Bet­tam
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to