Everyone knows that distracted driving is a big problem on the roads these days. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood focuses most of his energy on combating the dangers of texting and driving -- presumably because it's more common with younger, less-experienced drivers -- but in fact, there are a plethora of distractions to affect drivers of any age, from eating to talking on the phone to putting on lipstick. The situation is likely to worsen as in-dash and smartphone navigation systems become more common, but a new study seems to prove what many had already guessed: namely, that voice-based navigation is safer for all involved.

The study comes from VTTI and OnStar, which looked at a group of drivers from 25 to 55 and how they used five different navigation systems:

1. A smartphone app;

2. A personal navigation device (like those from TomTom or Garmin);

3. OnStar Turn-by-Turn directions;

4. OnStar Destination Download; and

5. Good old-fashioned printed directions.

To evaluate the safety of those methods, researchers tracked users' eye movements, performance data from vehicles, and asked direct questions of participants.

Not surprisingly, the study found that nearly 87% of participants preferred "simple, quick instructions", and over 80% said they'd opt for the "least-complicated" navigation option. Those findings would seem to put the two OnStar systems at the top of the safety list, as the study found that they require "significantly less mental effort" than either the smartphone app or the personal navigation device. (Oddly, no word about the printed directions, which might've been simplest of all.)  

The majority of participants also said that they liked having visual information in addition to any audio cues. On that front, participants preferred OnStar's Destination Download over all other options -- including the printed directions.

CAVEATS

It would seem logical to most people that voice-based navigation systems are less distracting than their visual counterparts. The less time drivers spend looking at their maps, the more time they can spend looking at the taillights of the car in front of them.

However, some studies have proven that, in fact, hands-free devices aren't safer. According to such research, the act of talking on the phone (or in OnStar's case, to an operator) is the major distraction, and it's not necessarily made worse when drivers use their hands. Until firm conclusions are reached, it would appear that much more research needs to be done in this area.

Another caveat: the study used a very small sample size -- just 24 participants. A study with more participants would carry more weight, scientifically speaking.

And of course, the biggest caveat of all: the study was commissioned by OnStar. That's not to say that OnStar acted unethically, or that the researchers at VTTI were unduly influenced by their funders. But when a group commissions a study with the intention of generating stats to support its own views or product, it invariably taints the research. It would be nice to have a similar study done by a fully independent group -- in fact, several of them. This is an interesting start, but there's a lot more material to uncover on the matter of distracted driving.

To learn more about the study, feel free to skim the press release below.

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Study: Voice-based Navigation Safer Way to Get Around

VTTI research suggests vocal control systems have sizeable advantage

DETROIT, April 14, 2011 /PRNewswire/ --

  • Voice-based Turn-By-Turn Direction service result in better vehicle control
  • 80 percent of study participants preferred "least complicated option"
  • Drivers value visual aids in addition to audio directions
A recent study by OnStar and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) found that voice-based telematics systems are a safer form of in-vehicle navigation compared to systems that rely solely on visual aids.

The OnStar-commissioned study evaluated a cell phone-based navigation application, a personal navigation device (PND), OnStar Turn-by-Turn directions and OnStar Destination Download, as well as printed driving directions. Researchers found that voiced-based OnStar Turn-by-Turn directions allowed drivers to keep their eyes on the road longer, required the shortest amount of time to enter a destination and resulted in better overall vehicle handling.

"Turn-by-Turn is OnStar's most requested service, with more than 2 million routes delivered per month, so we understand the importance of in-vehicle navigation to drivers," said Tom Jeffers, vice president, OnStar Public Policy. "That is why OnStar works with the leading institutions in the country to assess our services and other navigation technologies alike. We want to promote responsible technology that ensures drivers' hands are on the wheel, eyes are on the road and overall distraction is minimized."

The study evaluated 24 participants, aged 25 to 55, as they used the five different navigation options while driving. Inside the vehicle, audio and video footage of the drivers was captured, as well as the vehicle's key performance data. Researchers examined video of the driver's face, forward view and movements for analysis of eye glances and other motions.

Research showed that the two OnStar systems required significantly less mental effort than the personal navigation device and cell phone application. When asked about their preferences, 86.5 percent of participants liked "simple, quick instructions," and 80.8 percent indicated that they wanted the "least-complicated option."

"OnStar services are easy to use and don't require follow-up lessons and tutorials to operate, like other offerings on the market," said Jeffers. "With the simple push of a button, OnStar provides a human interaction that offers immediate, knowledgeable and personalized attention. This is what continues to set us apart from the competition."

The study also showed that drivers value visual information in addition to voice control, which is available with OnStar Destination Download. When participants were asked about their navigation preference, Destination Download received the largest percentage of being "Liked the Most."

"VTTI's research showed that participants seemed to favor the presence of visual information to accompany the audio directions," said Miguel Perez of Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. "Additionally, the results of the study showed sizeable advantages in the use of voice control for destination entry, suggesting that systems that offer an array of navigation options are preferred by drivers."  

Additionally, all systems except OnStar Turn-by-Turn navigation required more than 20 seconds of total glance duration while entering a destination.

Jeffers said that with April being Distracted Driving Awareness month, the results give some much-needed attention to possible distracted driving behaviors that put people at risk every day.

"What we know is that people are going to use technologies in their vehicles that may lead to distractions when they drive," said Jeffers. "We can't prevent them from doing so. But we can offer safe services such as Turn-By-Turn directions, which reduce distraction while still offering connectivity options."