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