Siri Driving Dangers: Are You Doing It Wrong?

A number of sources have criticized a study that found Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) Siri and a number of other voice-activated services to be a danger on the roads.

The study in question was released near the end of March and tested to see if voice-to-text applications — compared to typical texting methods — actually made it safer for drivers to engage with their mobile devices on the road. The findings did not look good for Siri.

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About 6.1 billion text messages are sent around the U.S. everyday, making it important for there to be different ways of getting those messages created. App developers have been working out everything from swipes keyboards, multi-language keyboards, and even a Morse code input. When Siri came out, it was quite popular with Apple fans, but it wasn’t long before a number of similar applications, like Vlingo, were developed on other smartphones, giving many people access to voice-to-text typing methods.

Washington D.C. and 39 states in the U.S. have banned text messaging while driving, as it is inherently dangerous, consistently taking drivers’ attention off the road. It seemed a no-brainer that Siri and similar apps could allow drivers to send their text messages without the dangerous distraction involved in most texting methods, but the study found otherwise.

The study put drivers on a closed course and had them text as they drove around. All the while, they were expected to respond to a light on the dash that would turn on. The finding was that drivers who were texting took twice as long to respond to the light, regardless of whether they were texting normally or using voice-to-text.

However, responses have argued that the test was conducted inappropriately. One of Siri’s co-founder, Adam Cheyer, as well as a report by Xconomy, argued that the study did not have drivers use Siri as it was intended to be used. Cheyer said, “I don’t think that there is any evidence that shows that if Siri and other systems are used properly in Eyes Free mode, they are just as risky as texting.”

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Apple has been working hard to have its products successfully integrated with automobiles, and Siri was expected to help drivers send messages, make calls, and pull up maps without distracting themselves from the road. Having a study by the Texas Transportation Institute consider Siri a distraction to drivers makes that proposition more difficult to implement.

The argument against the study is focused mostly on the way drivers used Siri. Rather than having Siri set up in the Eyes Free mode, subjects in the study held the phone in their hand with the screen on. Though this may not be the way the makers intended drivers to use Siri, it may still hold validity in the study.

Anyone who has used a speech-to-text application has probably experienced the frustration of watching the machine get a number of words wrong, creating an uninterpretable message. While Siri may be on the high end of such technology, it is not immune to mistakes. There are already whole websites dedicated to the typos created by auto-correct typing features, and voice-to-text could surely add to the lot. The result of the errors is that people go back and check to see what their phone thought they said.

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While the Eyes Free mode suggests the ideal and intended use of Siri, it may not be considering the realistic use. If people don’t trust Siri to take their dictations, they could all be looking at their screens and turning off Eyes Free mode. In response to the criticism, the author of the study, Christine Yager said that “we tested the applications in a way that is consistent with how many drivers typically use them,” and “we examined the product information contained in the packaging for the iPhone 4S, and were not able to find information related to the directed mode use of the device.”

The criticism aimed at the study may be appropriate in an ideal world, with devices that function flawlessly. But, the fact remains that many drivers look at their phones while they’re texting, whether or not their application has a voice-to-text and Eyes Free mode.

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