A new study by AAA found that hands-free devices and in-vehicle technologies designed to lessen distractions and dangers for drivers actually increases them.

Findings by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety show dangerous mental distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, according to a statement from AAA. Research showed that as mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time is slowed and brain function is compromised. Consequently, drivers scan the road less, possibly resulting in a driver not seeing objects right in front of them, including stop signs and pedestrians.

Lt. Jake Mahoney, a spokesman for the Aiken Department of Public Safety, said he is not surprised by the study's findings.

“I think the use of any electronic device while driving is dangerous due to the fact that anything that diverts your attention from driving safely is a danger,” he said. “Driving a motor vehicle is the most dangerous thing that an average person does on a daily basis. It requires your full attention, and anything, including cellphones, smartphones, use of any electronic device in a motor vehicle that diverts your attention from driving should be avoided.”

The study is the most comprehensive of its kind, according to AAA. Cameras mounted inside an “instrumented” car tracked eye and head movement of drivers.

A detection-response-task device was used to record driver reaction time in response to triggers of red and green lights added to a driver's field of vision, and a special electroencephalographic-configured skull cap charted drivers' brain activity so researchers could determine mental workload.

In the study, drivers engaged in common tasks such as listening to an audio book, talking on the phone or responding to voice-activated emails while behind the wheel. The levels of mental distraction were represented on a scale.

Tasks such as listening to the radio ranked as a category one level of distraction, or a minimal risk. Talking on the cell phone, both hand-held and hands-free, was considered a category two risk. Listening to and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features increased the driver's mental workload and distraction level to a category three rating.

“There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies,” AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet said. “It's time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misconception that hands-free means risk-free.”

Steve Deibel, owner and operator of Aiken Driving Academy, said the message to young drivers has focused on not texting and driving, but it needs to be expanded for all distracted driving.

“You get a lot of folks talking about how that's the wave,” he said of the new in-car technologies. “Some of the new cars are coming out with Facebook and Twitter apps right there in the car. These screens they're putting in the car now, you can click on Facebook.”

Deibel said anything a driver does behind the wheel, from programming a GPS, to talking to other passengers, is a distraction.

“If you're not thinking about what you're looking at, you're not focused on it,” he said. “When you're focused on driving, you stand a better chance of avoiding crashes.”

AAA has said it plans to promote dialogue with policymakers, safety advocates and manufacturers to ensure that the emerging in-vehicle technologies “won't lead to unintentional compromises in public safety.”

Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.