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driving concerns

I keep hearing that it's okay to use hands-free while driving. But when I try to tell my phone who to call or to give me directions, it gets things wrong more often than right. I've been so frustrated that I lose track of what's happening on the road. And other GPS apps typically give me wrong directions or strange routes, they'll stop talking while I'm driving or tell me to turn with zero notice. Who's testing or regulating these things to make sure they actually work and are safe to use on the road? — Marie, Mississauga, Ont.

Hands-free systems, whether on your phone or in your car, aren't officially regulated or tested. That's a problem, because when voice-activated systems don't work well, they can be more distracting than picking up a phone, studies show.

"No one's minding the store," says David Strayer, a University of Utah cognitive neurologist. "I think ultimately, having guidelines or standards would make sense – there's nothing along those lines now."

In two studies released in October, Strayer's team measured how much brain power it takes to drive using Apple's Siri and voice-activated infotainment systems from Chevrolet, Chrysler, Ford, Hyundai and Mercedes.

The systems were rigged so drivers didn't have to take their eyes off the road or their hands off the wheel – so there was no fumbling with a phone on the passenger seat – but the worst systems still were more distracting than using a hand-held device.

"We checked Siri in sending text messages, making calls, looking for directions and posting to Facebook and it was horrible," Strayer says. "When we tested using a driving simulator, we had three crashes with all the systems – two of the three happened with Siri."

On a scale from 1-to-5 – 1 is no distraction and 5 is doing a complex math problem – Siri fared the worst, at 4.14. Compared to that, a radio was 1.21, talking on hands-free phone was 2.27, talking to a a passenger was 2.33, and talking on a handheld phone was 2.45.

"Hands-free isn't brain-free," Strayer said. "Everyone's been focusing on keeping eyes on the road and the industry has moved to hands-free without formal evaluation."

Once systems start making errors – one actually called 911 accidentally – drivers get frustrated and they can't focus properly on driving, Strayer says. "You see videos of drivers swearing at these systems and when they're that upset and frustrated, you start seeing crashes."

Strayer's team didn't test other GPS apps or hands-free systems on other smart phone platforms, like Android.

In Canada, the provinces regulate distracted-driving laws. And those laws generally allow hands-free use of apps and devices.

Transport Canada does not regulate apps, built-in infotainment and navigation systems and stand-alone GPS devices. In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has voluntary guidelines for dashboard systems. It's working on guidelines for cellphones and voice-activated systems.

Strayer says, since there are no mandatory requirements, the safety of hands-free systems may not have been tested by manufacturers and designers.

"Some manufacturers have people who test these things and they've been pretty successful, so it's not an unsolvable problem," he says. "But with others, it's not clear that there's usability testing – don't assume that the technology has been vetted even within their own safety groups."

Before Strayer's latest studies, we were looking into industry testing specifically around distraction and Siri and GPS apps for smartphones. Globe Drive contacted Apple, Google, TomTom and Garmin over the past few months with questions about accuracy of voice commands and accuracy of directions. TomTom said it wouldn't comment. Google sent an e-mail statement that said it "encourage(s) users to follow local laws, be observant of driving conditions, stay attentive, and use their best judgment while driving." Apple sent an e-mail statement describing Siri's Eyes Free and Apple's Car Play.

When it comes to GPS, whether it's a phone app or a separate system, it's safest to program it before you're driving, Strayer says. "None (is) really easy to use or appropriate to use while you're driving your car," he says.

Even the most accurate GPS apps and systems still require critical thinking and awareness of the road around you, he says.

"Every year, you hear stories of people following it blindly onto roads that go nowhere or turning off bridges – we don't critically evaluate the turn-by-turn-information," he says. "When the GPS says to get in the left lane now, people just do it without shoulder checking or looking in their mirrors – and accidents happen."

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