New Study From OnStar Says Voice-Based Navigation Systems Are Safer

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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.


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

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