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A driver's behaviour is studied during Cognitive Distraction Phase II testing in Salt Lake City in March, 2014. Two new studies have found that voice-activated smartphones and dashboard infotainment systems may be making the distracted-driving problem worse.

The Associated Press

Most drivers know that using a hand-held cellphone while at the wheel is both dangerous and illegal. Now researchers say the built-in infotainment systems in many new cars are just as distracting, yet much less strictly regulated.

The technology ranges from complex multilayered menus on large display screens to voice-recognition commands to backup, side-view and 360-degree cameras. While such technology aims to make driving safer and more convenient, it is having the adverse effect, according to research at the University of Utah sponsored by the American Automobile Association (AAA).

Virtually every popular brand of vehicle on the market has models with systems deemed by researchers to impose either “high” or “very high” demand on a driver’s attention.

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“There’s been an explosion of technology in vehicles,” said David Strayer, a professor in cognition and neural science at the University of Utah. “A lot of times, it doesn’t work very well.”

Strayer, director of the university’s Center for the Prevention of Distracted Driving, leads a team of researchers who are studying the effect of in-vehicle technology on the brain’s function. The team has found that a lot of the technology created to enhance convenience is actually overloading brain mechanisms, resulting in driver distraction.

The lack of standardization across vehicles is cited as one of the reasons that auto connectivity suites demand a fair amount of drivers' mental energy.

Daimler AG - Global Communications Mercedes-Benz Cars/Handout

Strayer says drivers are distracted in two ways.

Most obvious is that drivers have to take their eyes off the road to look at the infotainment controls and read text-rich messages. Research has shown that the risk of a crash begins to increase after 2.5 seconds of looking away; in some cases, drivers spend 40 seconds looking at their infotainment systems.

Less obvious is the “mental effort” required to operate the system. The part of the brain that figures out the controls is the same part involved in planning and decision making, Strayer said. “Using your voice to communicate with computers requires a great deal of mental energy.”

The built-in technology in vehicles is generically referred to as its infotainment system. Features typically include Bluetooth links to smartphones, as well as audio controls, GPS navigation systems, external camera views, travel data (such as fuel consumption and distance to destination), safety features such as lane-keep assist, and in many cases, controls for the vehicle’s climate system.

Strayer said part of the problem is the lack of standardization. “A lot of people get the car home [after a purchase], and they don’t know how to do even the simplest things.” Controls can include touch screens, rotary dials, voice commands and even handwriting with a finger on a screen.

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“If you’re going to call, trying to write with your finger just isn’t going to work,” Strayer said. The problem is amplified in jurisdictions such as Britain and Australia, in which drivers sitting on the right-hand side of the vehicle try to use controls with their left hands, which, for most, is non-dominant.

A 2018 white paper by the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators identified built-in infotainment systems as a significant cause of distracted driving. It stated: “Studies indicate that some functions of infotainment technology can require drivers to take their eyes off the road and hands off the wheel for dangerously long periods of time.”

Mark Milner, co-chair of the white paper and safety program manager for the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), said many auto infotainment systems have been given interfaces that resemble those of hand-held devices, even though studies have shown such devices are by their nature distracting.

“There’s a problem when that type of interface is put into an automobile,” Milner said. “I don’t think consumers are sitting around and saying, ‘I wish my dash was more like an iPad.’”

The HondaLink system was found to place 'very high' demands on a driver's attention in a study by the American Automobile Association.

Honda

Combining auto functions, such as climate-system controls, with communications and entertainment controls, “seems by and large to make matters worse,” he said. “You used to be able to reach over and turn the knob on the radio,” Milner said. “You can’t do that with a touch screen.”

In the province of Quebec, a 2018 study by Léger Marketing sponsored by Allstate Insurance found that nine out of 10 Quebec drivers admit they have been distracted behind the wheel. Four in 10 respondents said they were distracted while fiddling with a car’s integrated systems, and one in four said they were distracted adjusting the GPS.

With systems so complex, legal advisers and driver advocates question the disparity between penalties for cellphone distractions and those from infotainment systems.

Richard Clarke, who leads the Pointts paralegal firm in Toronto, said one recent client was charged with distracted driving after she was stopped at a light and moved her wallet (which holds a cellphone) off the dash of the car.

“She’s facing a $600 fine, a three-day suspension and possible cancellation of her insurance for picking up her phone and putting it on her seat,” said Clarke, who was a police officer for nearly 12 years before becoming a licensed paralegal. “What’s the difference between that and touching the screen on your dash? I think it’s just as distracting, to be honest with you.”

Noting that distracted-driving laws distinguish between hand-held devices and those mounted in the vehicle, Clark said he finds the regulations “kind of confusing.”

Strayer says that in the United States, the National Transportation Safety Administration initially tried to introduce regulations around infotainment systems, but eventually shifted to voluntary guidelines. The voluntary system “hasn’t been as successful” as hoped, he said.

Automakers are in a tough spot, auto industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers says. On the one hand, the manufacturers are under constant regulatory pressure on all fronts – including to improve safety, emissions and fuel efficiency – and yet, on the other hand, consumers are demanding enhanced infotainment features.

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“How do you say no to a consumer?” DesRosiers asked. “The consumer is the most powerful entity out there.”

Chrysler's Uconnect system was also found to demand a 'very high' amount of a driver's attention.

FCA US LLC/The Associated Press

He added that many new features, including head-up display, lane-departure warning, blind-spot warning and back-up cameras, are making new vehicles much safer than in the past.

“Safety systems on vehicles are today are infinitely better than they were 20 years ago,” DesRosiers said.

Milner said manufacturers have to stop treating the creation of new features as “an arms race” and focus on simplicity instead. Regulating such change is difficult, he said, because Canada’s new auto sales market is small compared with that of the United States, and major changes need to be done in lockstep with larger markets.

“What we need from the auto industry is to take the notion of distracted driving more seriously,” Milner said. “There’s probably a way to implement new infotainment systems that is less distracting.”

Transport Canada collaborated with Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to develop guidelines and best practices to reduce in-vehicle distractions. The guidelines are for “designers and manufacturers of motor vehicles” as well as after-market suppliers. Transport Canada said in a statement to The Globe and Mail that it “encourages vehicle and electronics manufacturers to design devices that are compatible with safe driving and to follow all relevant safety guidelines and best practices.”

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It’s not easy to find a car that is free of complex infotainment technology. Strayer said when he was shopping for a new vehicle, “I was really cognizant of buying a car that’s not too distracting.” He chose a Toyota 4Runner, because that company has been slower to introduce such systems. Yet, like most buyers, he didn’t fiddle with the controls before he sealed the deal. When he drove it home, he was surprised at how complex the vehicle’s systems were.

“It took me forever,” he said. “I still haven’t figured out where all the things are.”

Ultimately, Stayer said, automakers are going to have to demand less from drivers. He noted that his research into mechanical distraction began in the 1990s, when he was asked to conduct research into why the number of plane crashes was increasing even as the machines themselves had improved.

He concluded that the aircraft were crashing because the pilots were being asked to do too many things. He believes the same thing is happening with cars today.

“The lessons we learned there, we have to adapt to the car,” he said.

The most and least distracting infotainment systems

The American Automobile Association (AAA) used research conducted by the psychology department of the University of Utah to rank the level of distraction created by infotainment systems in vehicles. Drivers were asked to use voice commands and touch screens to make a call, send a text message, program audio entertainment or program navigation while driving. The systems were rated for placing “very high,” “high,” “moderate,” or “low” demand on a driver’s attention. None of the systems tested ranked “low.” The following list is updated periodically by the AAA. Vehicles below are listed alphabetically in each category.

Very high demand on driver’s attention:

  • 2018 Audi Q7 Premium Plus MMI version 443
  • 2018 BMW 430i xDrive
  • 2017 Buick Enclave Leather’s IntelliLink
  • Chrysler 300C’s Uconnect
  • 2017 Dodge Durango GT with Uconnect 8.4 Nav
  • Ford Mustang GT Premium Convertible’s Sync 3 (version 2.20)
  • GMC Yukon SLT IntelliLink
  • 2017 Honda Civic Sedan Touring’s HondaLink
  • Honda Ridgeline RTL-E’s HondaLink (version 4.2.2)
  • 2017 Mazda3 Touring’s Mazda Connect
  • 2018 Mazda CX-5 Mazda Connect
  • Mercedes-Benz C300’s Comand
  • 2017 Nissan Armada SV NissanConnect
  • 2018 Nissan Pathfinder SL’s NissanConnect
  • 2017 Nissan Rogue NissanConnect
  • Subaru Crosstrek with Starlink
  • Tesla Model S 75
  • Volvo XC60 T5 Inscription’s Sensus Connect

High demand on driver’s attention

  • 2018 Audi A6 Premium MMI
  • 2018 Cadillac CT6 Cue
  • Cadillac XT5 Luxury Cadillac User Experience (CUE)
  • 2017 Chevrolet Traverse 1LT’s MyLink
  • Dodge Ram 1500 Express’ Uconnect
  • Ford Fusion Titanium Sync 3 (version 2.0)
  • Hyundai Sonata Base’s Blue Link
  • 2017 Infiniti Q50 Premium AWD’s InTouch
  • Jeep Compass Sport’s Uconnect Radio 230/Req
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited’s Uconnect
  • 2017 Kia Sorento LX’s UVO
  • 2017 Nissan Maxima SV, equipped with the NissanConnect
  • 2017 Toyota RAV4 XLE Entune
  • 2017 Volkswagen Jetta S MIB II
  • 2018 Volvo XC90 Momentum’s Sensus Connect

Moderate demand on driver’s attention

  • Chevrolet Equinox LT MyLink
  • 2018 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 MyLink
  • 2018 Ram 1500 Laramie’s Uconnect
  • Ford F-250 XLT’s Sync
  • Hyundai Santa Fe Sport’s Blue Link
  • 2018 Kia Optima LX UVO
  • 2018 Kia Sportage LX’s UVO
  • Lincoln MKC Premiere’s Sync 3 (version 2.0)
  • 2018 Lincoln Navigator Select L Sync 3
  • Toyota Camry SE with Entune
  • Toyota Corolla SE with Entune
  • 2017 Toyota Sienna XLE Entune

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