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driving concerns

When car companies add features to a car, do they have to test them to make sure they don’t cause driver distraction? I was with a friend who was driving on a winding mountain road and his luxury car’s voice-activated infotainment system was repeatedly activated during our conversation – even though we didn’t say the keyword that activates it. He was fumbling at the screen and trying to find cancel. On the way back from our hike, he was trying to send a text using voice commands and it took the system four or five times to get it right. The same thing happened when he tried to add a destination into the GPS [navigation system]. Even though it was hands-free, he kept looking at the screen in frustration – on a foggy road frequented by cyclists. Are there any standards car companies have to follow? – Michael, Vancouver

Just because something’s built into your car, don’t assume it’s safe to use while driving, said a distracted-driving researcher.

“A lot of times, people buying a car think that since the car manufacturer put something in the car, it must be safe and easy to use,” said David Strayer, a professor of cognitive neurology at the University of Utah. “It has not been thoroughly tested – and in many cases, a lot of the features are distracting.”

While some manufacturers do test their infotainment systems – which can use touch screens and voice commands to control music, navigation, hands-free calling and other functions – to see how distracting they are to drivers, many don’t, Strayer said. Worse, there are no mandatory regulations or government tests dictating how infotainment systems and hands-free features should work.

The United States and Canada have guidelines recommending that screens be easy to see and reach, that text be legible and that certain tasks, such as using a keypad, be inaccessible while driving, but they’re voluntary.

In a 2017 study for the American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety, Strayer evaluated the infotainment systems in 40 new 2017 and 2018 vehicles for visual distraction (how long it took a driver’s eyes off the road) and cognitive distraction (how long it took a driver’s mind off the task of driving).

All of the systems were found to be distracting, with 27 out of 40 having distraction levels rated “very high” or “high.”

“There were some cars where the systems were so horrible that people [in the study] didn’t want to drive them,” Strayer said.

For instance, 12 of the 30 cars let drivers physically program directions into the GPS system – which took an average of 40 seconds – while the car was moving.

If you’re driving at 50 kilometres an hour, you’ll travel more than 550 metres – the length of four Canadian football fields – in 40 seconds.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto fared better than automaker’s systems, but they were still distracting, Strayer said.

Even though the study was five years ago, it still applies now, Strayer said. “It would be worse now, since cars have a lot more gadgets.”

Ideally, new cars should be independently tested and have distraction ratings – similar to the crash safety ratings done now by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), he said.

“If you’re buying a car, you would be able to see how distracting it is,” Strayer said.

Driven to distraction?

A Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) survey released in April found that 79 per cent of respondents said they’d been distracted while driving.

The top causes of distraction? In order, they were eating and drinking, interacting with the vehicle’s infotainment system, using voice-activated features, and using a phone hands-free.

“Just because the technology exists, that doesn’t mean it’s not distracting or that it will work properly,” said Kristine D’Arbelles, CAA’s senior director of public affairs. “Just because the technology is there, it doesn’t mean we have to use it.”

To minimize distraction while you’re driving, D’Arbelles recommends setting “whatever you can” before you start driving.

That includes selecting a playlist or podcast and setting your destination in your GPS and making sure it’s right.

D’Arbelles also recommends setting your phone to “do not disturb” so you won’t get texts or calls while driving.

Hands-free calling and texting – even just the sound of the alert that you have an incoming text or call – can steal your attention away from driving, she said.

But distractions don’t just come from technology – a bag falling off the front seat or a spilled latte can also take your eyes and mind off the road.

That’s why CAA says you should stow away loose objects, including your phone, before you start driving, and avoid eating and drinking while you’re on the road.

“We’re trying to be as reasonable as possible – taking a sip of your Starbucks is probably not as bad as having your eyes glued to your phone or taking a driving selfie,” D’Arbelles said. “But if you have a Starbucks [cup] in your hand and a child runs onto the street or a cyclist comes around the corner, it might take you longer to react.”

Could you get a ticket for distracted driving if you’re scrolling through menus to change the radio station or eating a hamburger?

While the rules vary by province, most are similar. While Alberta has a specific law against distracted driving that includes flossing your teeth, most provinces don’t have laws specifically against distracted driving.

Instead, they have laws against using an electronic device while driving.

But in every province, you can still get charged with careless driving if you’re distracted by something else and involved in a crash.

In British Columbia, for instance, you could be charged with using an electronic device while driving – which triggers a $368 fine and four demerit points – if you’re physically touching a phone or tablet, said Corporal Mike Halskov, a spokesman for B.C. Highway Patrol.

But if some other distraction causes you to crash, you could be charged with careless driving – which comes with a $368 fine and six demerit points, Halskov said.

In 2020, the most recent year with complete data, there were 3,003 tickets issued in British Columbia for careless driving and 22,369 for using an electronic device while driving.

Distracted driving is now the second-leading cause of fatal crashes in B.C., behind speeding,” Halskov said.

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com and put ‘Driving Concerns’ in your subject line. E-mails without the correct subject line may not be answered. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.