For drivers, Siri’s screwups are worse than fiddling with a phone

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siridistraction
Siri's so distractive, AAA had to make a fourth category for it. Photo: AAA

Three out of four drivers in America believe that using hands-free technology like Siri is a safer way to cruise the highway than fiddling with buttons and knobs, but a surprising study from AAA found that using Siri on the road is actually dangerously distracting.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety tested the distraction levels of a number of hands-free solutions from auto-manufacturers that allow drivers to compose messages, change the radio, and navigate complex menus with voice commands, and found that trying to chat with Siri while driving is more distracting that composing a text.

“Researchers used the same metrics to measure a broader range of tasks including using social media, sending texts and updating calendars. The research uncovered that hands- and eyes-free use of Apple’s Siri generated a relatively high category 4 level of mental distraction.”

Apple’s iOS 7 version of Siri was used in the study, which was conducted before the release of iOS 8. CarPlay also received no testing time, likely due to its limited availability in 2014, unless you’re in the market for a Ferrari. Other car systems tested included Chevrolet MyLink, Hyundai Blue Link, Chrysler Uconnect, Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch, Mercedes COMAND, Toyota’s Entune, all of which scored lower on the distraction scale than Siri.

To make a truly hands-free version of Siri, AAA talked to Apple’s technical staff and customized Siri to be completely hands and eyes free by using a lapel microphone, and the “Hello Siri” command to manually activate an iPhone 5. This allowed the driver to never look at, or touch the iPhone during interactions.

The distraction tests were conducted by Dr. David Strayer and researchers at the University of Utah, who used heart-rate monitors and other equipment designed to measure reaction times, and ranked the most common voice-activation features based on how distracting they are. Unfortunately for Apple, Siri ranked highest.

AAA encourages drivers to limit their use of voice-based technology to decrease distraction. The company is still optimistic about future solutions though, and says developers should improve their designs to be less complicated, more accurate and easier to use.