back to article Siri ... why is this semi headed RIGHT AT ME? Phone apps distracting as ever – new study

Using your phone's cyber-slave by voice while focusing on the road? You're not as safe as you think, according to AAA. The US auto club said it found apps such as Siri, and in-car personal assistant systems, are far more distracting than expected. A study [PDF] AAA carried out with the University of Utah found that using …

  1. Eddy Ito

    And how does this compare to having a conversation with a passenger in the car? Almost forgot, also include having children of various ages say 2 - 18 in the car? (Assume the odd aged children are difficult and even years are well behaved for a start)

    1. JDX Gold badge

      "more taxing on the mind of drivers than normal tasks, such as chatting to a passenger or listening to the radio"

      1. Eddy Ito

        D'oh! Must have missed that bit while talking to Gortaniri. I still believe some children would be worse than most anything else.

        1. Terry Barnes

          It's a cognitive thing. Interacting with the voice of a person you can't see - whether they're real or not, places a big load on the same system in the brain that deals with holding a spatial model of where you are and what's around you. It's quite important when driving.

          Moving faster than we can run and talking to people we can't see are both recent developments in evolutionary terms - attempting to do both simultaneously with the same brain system is asking for trouble. Even walking and doing it is hard - witness people on the pavement stopping suddenly, swerving or walking into people when using mobiles.

          You can try it yourself at home. Play a game like Tetris and try and do other things at the same time - talk to someone sitting next to you, have some shouty kids next to you and then try talking to someone on a mobile. I'll bet upwards of 40p that your lowest score will be on the latter 'trial'.

          Interestingly it's not so apparent where the communications mode isn't full-duplex. Those car radios the police use with a CB style 'push to talk' button don't cause the same impairment. It's hard to make a like-for-like comparison as the systemic driving training the emergency services drivers receive means they use their brains differently to most people when driving.

      2. Robert Helpmann??

        Just the facts

        ...more taxing on the mind of drivers than normal tasks...

        Eddy Ito has a good point, no matter how unintentionally made. There were a number of things that the study should have addressed but that it did not. There should have been a quantified measure for each of those "normal tasks" as well as a baseline (driving with no additional tasks). The measurements given were based on subjective reporting - a notoriously weak approach - by people with a clean driving record. Throw in some teens who are familiar with Siri and I imagine the data would look quite a bit different. The outcomes were unsurprising if the sample group had no experience with the tasks being performed as any novel task would would be relatively distracting. Some of this is perhaps outside the scope of this study, but should highlight some of its weaknesses.

    2. R42

      Kids are easy. Siri REALY DOESN'T LISTEN.

      I have 3 children. Two of them are identical twin boys, age 3. They fight, scream, laugh, beg, argue, and in general compete to make the most noise while I drive. I can tune it out, sort of. I can deal with talking to them while going faster than I can run in an aging minivan. But if I let me kids convince me to ask Siri to play "Let it Go" for the thousandth time, I better pull over. If I don't, eventually, after me (and then all the kids) screaming, "Play Let it Go From the Frozen Soundtrack You ----- ----- Siri," I pull over and just select the song, or am forced to pull over by an obstacle which the van has struck.

  2. JDX Gold badge

    Slight flaw

    If they put 45 people in unfamiliar cars, using assistant systems they were not used to, there would be a learning period. When I got my new swype keyboard, it took me time to understand it before I grew more confidant than with the old way of doing things.

    So this study seems to show there is at least initially a loss of concentration while acclimatising to a new system, which isn't ideal but if that is only temporary it is not as serious.

    Additionally, who were the 45 people? Drivers who are used to using modern tech, or those for who it was something totally new?

  3. i like crisps

    Could it be Siris tone and accent thats the problem here?

    Perhaps a more soothing and 'Neutral' voice would be less distracting, like the platoon sergeant out of 'Full Metal Jacket'?

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Siri is worthless in the car...

    I'm a Mac user who also has an iPad and an iPhone. I love them for most other purposes, but Siri is absolutely worthless in the car.


    (Hold center button until ding)

    "Text Mary I'll be home late because traffic sucks."


    "OK. Send it?"


    Send WHAT? Now I have to take my eyes off the road and look down to proofread the message.

    Another example:

    (Hold center home button until ding)

    "Remind me to pick up groceries."


    "OK. Here's your reminder."


    What does that mean? Did you create it? Do I need to tap something? What was the text you divined from what I said? Now, again, I have to look down at the screen to proofread something. (Related rant: 9 out of 10 times when I try the "remind me to" feature, the resultant reminder is "to". It ignores everything after the "remind me to". Useful.)

    Every time I use Siri I hit annoyances like that, to the point I don't bother. I wonder if "hey google" is any better? Although last time I had an android phone, I called 911 (USA version of 0118 999 881 99 9119 7253) at least weekly, by accident, due to the moronic lock screen design.

    Maybe I'm just too old and crabby for phones :)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Siri is worthless in the car...

      Well, Siri obviously needs a "car" mode where she'll read things to you instead of asking you look at it. Presumably the work that Apple and Google are doing with automakers will put them in such a car mode.

      Not that this will help with the mental load issue identified here. Same reason why even hands free phone conversations show a notable increase in distraction beyond that of simply talking to passengers in the car. In both cases you need to concentrate on speaking clearly, while when you have passengers in the car they can pick up your facial expressions, gestures, etc. They also have the same background noise environment as you, so they understand you more easily and you speak normally without devoting that extra bit of concentration to a remote (or disembodied, in the case of Siri/Google Now/Cortana) listener.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Siri is worthless in the car...

      Is that you, Barry Kripke?

  5. fixit_f

    SEMI lols

    "Semi" means something different in the uk - especially when it's headed right at you.

    1. alwarming
      Thumb Up

      Re: SEMI lols

      Ha ha, spot on. No half-cocked measures there.

  6. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    They're driving with EEG kit on their heads, they also have to watch for an LED in peripheral vision and respond to that by pressing a micro-switch. Yup, that simulates normal driving conditions OK.

    It's interesting that in Phase 1 there seems to be little difference (maybe none; there were no error indications) between talking to a passenger, talking on a hand-held & talking on a hands-free. If the differences are significant the hands-free was slightly less distracting than the passenger.

  7. ellenbryson


    I used to be quite concerned about driving distractions--literally fearful to drive near people with their hands to their ears. I never used my own phone while driving. Then I saw the US Federal Highway's ruling that digital billboards are not distracting. Foolish me. I thought distractions mattered. Now I combine whatever I want with driving: eating, surfing the net, talking on the phone, reading the billboards, texting. O, also, I pray!

  8. Darth.0

    Something smells

    I'd like to know who funded this research.

    1. Ryan Kendall

      Re: Something smells

      Alcoholics Anonymous Association

    2. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

      Re: Something smells

      The American Athletics Association - they want us all to be out of cars and running from place to place.

  9. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    Voice controlled climate control?

    What planet are we living on? Why do we keep changing technologies that work and are simple to operate (e.g. a knob with a scale painted blue at one end and red at the other) for overcomplicated systems that require multiple processors and complex electronics?

    (I may have ranted about this on the general subject of internet of things, too; same reason - overcomplication.)

  10. paulc

    Voice recognition in fighters?

    So does this mean the much vaunted voice recognition and command functions in modern fighters are not as good as they're put up to be?

    1. Crisp

      Re: Voice recognition in fighters?

      There's a big problem trying to get them to open the bomb bay doors.

  11. Horridbloke

    Does not apply to good drivers

    Yeah but this is only true for bad drivers innit? Right now I'm using voice typing while driving my A4 along the M6 without any OH F

  12. Swarthy


    "We already know that drivers can miss stop signs, pedestrians and other cars while using voice technologies because their minds are not fully focused on the road ahead," said AAA CEO Bob Darbelnet.

    Surely the problem is when they don't miss pedestrians and other cars.

  13. Alistair Silver badge

    "We already know that drivers can miss hit stop signs, pedestrians and other cars while using voice technologies because their minds are not fully focused on the road ahead,” said AAA CEO Bob Darbelnet.


    But then, perhaps I'm just too damn blunt.

    turn it off, put it down, and just #%#$%^ drive dammit!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  14. sisk

    My car has a built in voice dialer. From experience I can understand this perfectly. If I'm calling someone in the onboard phonebook (hit a button, listen for the beep, say "Call wife", all of about 2 seconds) it's usually not a big deal, but if I have to actually dial a number, then listen to it's confirmation to make sure the half-deaf piece of junk got it right (it never does on the first try with numbers), then confirm, the road certainly does get less of my concentration for about 30 seconds. I don't do that while driving. Still it's better than pulling out my phone and scrolling through my contacts would be (again, not something I'd do while driving, but a lot of idiots do).

  15. ecofeco Silver badge

    Insert Standard Interface Rant Here

    Because more distraction are exactly what we need when operating heavy machinery.

    Hang on while I turn on the radio and look at the GPS while making a phone call and checking my email and latest text messages. All I have to do is push this button, then that button, then that button, then that button, then that button, then that button, then that button...

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