New research warns against Wi-Fi in cars

October 16, 2013

Plans to provide high-speed Internet access in vehicles, announced last month by Canadian telecommunications company Rogers Communications and American provider Sprint Corporation, could do with some sobering second-thought, says a researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto.

"Because of the potential for , safety should be of great concern," said Professor Ian Spence, author of a new study on the impact of auditory distractions on visual attention. "Many people assume that talking to a voice-operated device will be as safe as using a hands-free cell phone, but neither activity is safe."

Spence and a team of researchers asked subjects to perform an attentional visual field test in which they repeatedly identified the random location of an object in visual clutter displayed on a computer monitor. Poor performance on the test is known to be a good predictor of unsafe driving. Subjects performed the test while carrying out a range of listening and/or speaking tasks or in silence.

An example of an easy task was listening to recordings of news items, much like listening to a car radio. More difficult tasks required subjects to answer simple yes-no questions while performing the . Subjects answered by either speaking out loud in some experimental conditions, or merely thinking of the answer in others. The most-demanding questions required subjects to take the last letter of a presented word (e.g. apple) and speak another word beginning with that letter (e.g. elephant).

Subjects who completed the test of coupled with the listening/speaking tasks were as accurate as those who completed the visual test in silence. However, they responded much more slowly as the difficulty increased – as much as one second slower with the most demanding tasks.

"It did not matter whether the subject spoke the answer aloud or simply thought about the answer," said Spence. "It was the thinking, not speaking, that caused them to slow down."

Spence said the practical consequences are clear.

"At 50 kilometres per hour, a car travels 13.9 metres in one second. A driver who brakes one second earlier than another driver to avoid a collision, will either prevent it completely or be traveling more slowly when it occurs, lowering the probability of severe injury or fatality. A delay in braking by as much as one second presents a significant threat to safe driving and casts doubt on the belief that hands-free voice-controlled devices reduce driver distraction."

Explore further: Action videogames change brains: study

More information: The study "How speech modifies visual attention" appears in the September/October issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology.

Related Stories

Action videogames change brains: study

April 26, 2012

A team led by psychology professor Ian Spence at the University of Toronto reveals that playing an action videogame, even for a relatively short time, causes differences in brain activity and improvements in visual attention.

Playing action videogames improves visual search

March 14, 2013

Researchers at the University of Toronto have shown that playing shooting or driving videogames, even for a relatively short time, improves the ability to search for a target hidden among irrelevant distractions in complex ...

iPod use while driving is dangerously distracting

September 27, 2013

New road safety research suggests that scrolling through music selections on MP3 players while driving is just as distracting as text messaging or entering details into a navigation system.

Recommended for you

Serious research into what makes us laugh

November 24, 2015

More complex jokes tend to be funnier but only up to a point, Oxford researchers have found. Jokes that are too complicated tend to lose the audience.

Psychologists dispute continuum theory of sexual orientation

November 19, 2015

Washington State University researchers have established a categorical distinction between people who are heterosexual and those who are not. By analyzing the reported sexual behavior, identity and attraction of more than ...

Babies have logical reasoning before age one, study finds

November 18, 2015

Human infants are capable of deductive problem solving as early as 10 months of age, a new study by psychologists at Emory University and Bucknell finds. The journal Developmental Science is publishing the research, showing ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.