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Beware, Siri: Even voice texting is dangerous while driving

If you think your smartphone’s fancy voice recognition software lets you text safely while you are driving, think again.

A new study by Texas A&M University’s Transportation Research Institute suggests that far from making drivers safer, the practice takes longer than manually texting and does nothing to reduce distracted driving.

The study was reported in PC magazine:

“Texting,” concluded the study’s author, Christina Yager, “is not an activity that should be coupled with driving.”

Yet who among us – meaning, me – has not texted while behind the wheel, all the while promising to stop ... right after I send just one more text?

I mean, what the heck. Everyone does it, right?

Well, that depends on how the question is asked.

In January, in a survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 35% of drivers admitted reading a text or email while driving in the previous month. Only 26% admitted to typing one.

But Yager got some interesting results in an online survey that she conducted in conjunction with the driving tests. Fully 52% of respondents admitted texting while driving. But we have an amazing ability to parse our bad behaviors. When she asked whether drivers texted while stopped at lights, 72% replied in the affirmative.

"In my opinion," said Yager, who is an associate transportation researcher, "if you are in a vehicle and it is not parked, then you are driving."

I personally have noticed an uptick in noise pollution related to that particular habit. Without benefit of a study, I nevertheless have concluded that so many drivers catch up on emails and texts while stopped at intersections that they frequently fail to notice when the light changes. This causes frustrated drivers behind them to go crazy on their horns.

In Texas, the theory that texting at the wheel while using voice software -- Siri on iPhones or Vlingo on Androids -- is safer than manually typing out a message was put to the test on a 3.8-mile closed course on a former Air Force Base that is part of the Texas A&M Riverside campus.

Forty-three people, driving a 2009 Ford Explorer, were told to go 30 mph, and respond to a periodically illuminated light while driving and not texting, then while texting short messages, sometimes manually and sometimes by voice. Yager found that voice-to-text took longer than typing, but resulted in fewer spelling errors (Siri had the fewest).

No matter what method the drivers used to text, their response times to that illuminated light were twice as slow as when they were not texting at all.

Ironically, drivers reported that they felt safer using the voice technology, even though the test results indicated that they probably were not.

Yager, 28, said she never touches her cellphone while in the car. “Even when I am in the car with my husband,” she said, “I have a hard time driving and carrying on a conversation with him. I am not a good multi-tasker under any circumstances.”

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Twitter: @robinabcarian

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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