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Yikes! Social networking behind the wheel.

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A story in the Seattle Times on September 8th indicates that GM is working on updates to their OnStar system that would allow the driver to update their status on Facebook as well as listen to Facebook messages. The system would also read text messages and let the driver reply using one of four present replies by pressing a button on the steering wheel.

This is part of GM's attempt to better compete with the Ford SYNC system by Microsoft. Both GM and Ford are working to develop systems that deliver information and entertainment to the driver. This includes social networking.

The general idea behind the GM and Ford systems is that they allow the driver to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. However, these systems neglect the cognitive sources of distraction.

Over a decade of research has documented that interacting with systems like this can divert attention from driving and result in substantial impairments. Simply put, you cannot pay attention to two different things at the same time. If you are updating the status of your Facebook account, you are not paying attention to the road.

A study published about 10 years ago in the journal Human Factors by John Lee and Tim Brown tested this type of system. A computer read e-mail messages to the driver and the driver composed messages with voice commands (instead of using a computer to decipher the driver's commands, a researcher typed the messages so that the speech to text worked perfectly).

The authors found that brake reaction time increased by 30% when the drivers were using this system. They noted that such a system would increase both the likelihood and severity of crashes. This doesn't bode well for drivers using either the GM or Ford systems.

So watch out! The driver next to you may be updating their Facebook account and their reactions will be about as bad as if they were drunk.

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