If you are thrilled that your new car allows you to text, check Facebook updates and call a friend without taking your hands off the wheel, it may be time to reconsider your driving habits.

If your car came equipped with hands-free devices, don't be lulled into a false sense of security. Using them while driving is still unsafe, finds new research. (Photo: leezsnow/Getty Images)

If your car came equipped with hands-free devices, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. Using them while driving is still unsafe, finds new research. (Photo: leezsnow/Getty Images)

A series of studies found that even though you do not have to take your eyes off the road or remove even one hand from the steering wheel, verbally interacting with technology while driving is a distraction and therefore a danger to you and your passengers.

To test the impact of voice-activated communications systems in cars, the AAA (formerly the American Automobile Association) and the University of Utah investigated driver behavior andresponses by recording eye movement, heart rate and survey responses from drivers engaging in a range of tasks, from driving to chatting with Siri.

Communication Comes With a Cost

Once the data were crunched, it became clear that “even though your car may be configured to support social media, texting and phone calls, it doesn’t mean it is safe to do so,” says University of Utah psychology professor and study leader David Strayer in a university interview. “The primary task should be driving. Things that take your attention away make you a poor driver and make the roads less safe.”

The research looked at a range of talking, texting and messaging tasks in a variety of vehicles. About 162 study participants, who were ages 18 to 40 and fluent in English, were tested in three

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groups. One group worked through a series of computer exercises; another was tested in a driving simulator; and another in cars fitted with instruments to measure reactions and behavior.

Researchers discovered that the level of distraction depended on the device and the type of car. They found:

  • Chevrolet’s MyLink system distracted drivers the most overall.
  • Using Apple iPhone’s Siri to send and receive texts, post to Facebook and Twitter and check the calendar was more distracting than any other voice-activated technology, when used as a hands-free, eyes-free device.
  • Mercedes Benz’s COMMAND system, MyFord Touch and Chrysler’s Uconnect were better, but all diverted attention more than a mobile-phone conversation.
  • The least distracting system was Toyota’s Entune, which took as much attention as listening to a book on tape, followed by Hyundai’s Blue Link, which was a bit more distracting, but less so than talking with a passenger.

One of the studies also rated distractions from eight different ways of interacting using a five-point scale, with five indicating the highest level of distraction. The full list of activities showed distraction levels of:

  • 1.88 to issue simple voice commands, such as turn on heat or tune the radio.
  • 2.04 to ask a natural, recorded voice to play emails and texts.
  • 2.31 to ask a computerized voice to play emails and texts.
  • 2.83 to use an error-free, voice-based navigation system.
  • 3.06 to ask a computerized voice to play and compose emails and texts.
  • 3.09 to ask a natural, recorded voice to play and compose emails and texts.
  • 3.67 to use an error-prone voice-based navigation system.
  • 4.14 to use Apple’s Siri (version iOS 7) to navigate, send and receive texts, make Facebook and Twitter posts and use the calendar without handling or looking at the phone itself.

In addition to sharing recommendations with automakers to help them make the voice tools safer, AAA and Strayer urge drivers to minimize use of in-vehicle technology.

The voice-based systems that were rated the most distracting scored that way because they are complicated, demand the driver’s attention, and often fail to recognize voice commands.

Strayer added: “It was to the point where drivers [in the experiments] were cursing the systems out, especially the ones that were difficult and wouldn’t do what they wanted. If you buy one of these cars, make sure you can actually use the voice-based technology before you leave the lot.”

These findings are a reminder that technology is not necessarily safe just because it’s available. Try listening to a little music to pass the time while you drive (one of the least distracting options) and wait until you’re parked to reconnect.