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Are touch screens in cars too distracting for seniors? My parents are in their late sixties and they’re looking for a new higher-end SUV. Nearly everything they’ve liked has had touch screens that control all the basic things you use every day, like air conditioning and the stereo. I found the touch screens were distracting for me to use while driving. Could they be even more distracting for my people my parents’ age? – Jenn, Winnipeg

Fiddling with a touch screen on the road can drive anyone to distraction, but it can be especially distracting for older drivers, researchers say.

“In our tests, everyone was distracted by these systems, but older drivers were distracted for much longer periods of time,” says David Strayer, a professor of cognitive neurology at the University of Utah who focuses on distracted driving. “People my age struggled to use these things and were oftentimes frustrated.

“They’d say that it makes no sense to be doing this while you’re driving.”

In a recent study for the American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety, Strayer’s group put younger drivers (ages 21 to 36) and older drivers (ages 55 to 75) on the road in six different 2018 vehicles. The drivers had to perform basic tasks on the infotainment systems, including changing the radio station, sending a text, making a call and entering a destination into the navigation system.

On average, older drivers took their eyes off the road for eight seconds longer than younger drivers. And it took older drivers longer to do the tasks overall. For instance, text messaging using the built-in system took 28 seconds for younger drivers and 34 seconds for older drivers.

“Anything more than 24 seconds is too long,” Strayer says. “And many of these things take over a minute to perform – so your attention is divided between driving and whatever you’re trying to do.”

Old habits?

There are a few reasons why older drivers might struggle with technology while driving, Strayer says.

“As we get older, we’re slower, and we tend to have more difficulty with complex interactions,” Strayer says. “And older drivers are probably not as familiar with tech in general – there’s still a market for flip phones, and that market isn’t people in their twenties.”

In the study, cars with touch screens were, generally, less distracting than cars which used a central controller – like a joystick, rotary dial or touchpad – or voice commands.

But touch screens were still distracting, especially when they forced drivers to scroll through multiple menus to do basic things.

“One of the cars we looked at had more than 200 different buttons on the touch screen,” he says. “That’s more than a fighter jet.”

Increasingly, luxury-car makers are replacing physical controls for the radio and climate control with touch screens.

Tesla’s Model 3, for instance, has one button in the whole vehicle. Some systems, like Jaguar’s, incorporate multi-function physical knobs into those systems, so you’re turning a knob to turn up the heat instead of trying to find the right place to touch on the screen.

“It tends to be hit-or-miss on whether this technology is usable,” Strayer says.

Since cars with the tech tend to be more expensive, people with the financial means to buy them are often older adults, Strayer says.

“And they have a harder time using it,” he says. “So it’s kind of a double whammy.”

Systems not tested

But isn’t somebody making sure that these infotainment systems are safe to use? Not really, Strayer says.

“You may assume that if it’s in the car, it has been tested,” Strayer says. “But it’s just not true.”

While some manufacturers do test their infotainment systems to see how distracting they are to drivers, there are no mandatory regulations or government testing, Strayer says.

“It should be tested and [automakers] should be doing a better job of evaluating their systems and making sure they can be used by all groups, not just older drivers,” Strayer says. “In fact, it would be ideal to test them with older drivers – if older drivers can understand them, other drivers should be able to too.”

To figure out whether a car’s controls will be distracting on the road, test them before you buy it, Strayer says.

“Get in and figure out how to turn the radio on and how to change stations,” Strayer adds. “And then imagine having to go through those steps every day for the next ten years.”

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