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New In-Car Systems Drive Motorists To (Even Greater) Distraction

Published: October 24, 2017

Over the past 30 years, the instruments and features installed into motor vehicle dashboards have become not only more sophisticated, they are downright prolific. Unfortunately, as they have grown in both scope and popularity, these in-car “infotainment” systems are also driving motorists to greater distraction.

Newtown resident and traffic safety expert Neil Chaudhary, Phd spoke to The Newtown Bee this week following the release of a new AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study on the issue of in-car electronics, and how, while they are designed to make one’s driving experience safer and more pleasant — they also present safety concerns.

That’s because they have a very high potential to keep drivers’ eyes off the road and hands off the wheel for potentially dangerous periods of time, the AAA study says.

“I can’t say I am surprised by this study,” Dr Chaudhary said.

As the principle at Preusser Research Group, Inc, (PRG) a full-service research firm specializing in transportation, highway safety, and issues related to drug and alcohol abuse, as well as the premier investigators of behavioral traffic safety related issues, Dr Chaudhary said he includes a discussion of in-vehicle technologies in almost all of his talks on distracted driving.

“I remember when I got my current vehicle I was thinking that all the voice recognition and fancy touchscreen technology would allow me to use my “infotainment” system safely but when I got behind the wheel I recognized that this was not the case,” he said.

The new AAA research reports drivers, who use new voice-based and touch screen features to program their GPS or send text messages, are mentally and visually distracted for an average of 40 seconds.

“What drivers need to know is that we have a single core brain when it comes to attention,” Dr Chaudhary said. “We cannot, for the most part — attend to two things simultaneously. Some people have become decent at serially focusing back and forth between more than one task, but when you are attending to one stimulus you are not attending to any others.”

When Seconds Count

Previous AAA research found drivers doubled their crash risk by not watching the road for just two seconds, so this new research is very significant, considering one in three US drivers continue to use high-tech systems while driving.

Dr Chaudhary said there are essentially three components to distracted driving — manual distraction (hands off the wheel as might occur with texting while driving), visual distraction (also occurs with texting — eyes off the road), and cognitive distraction — the one most relevant to this study — mind off your driving.

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA has recommended, or even perhaps mandated that the in-vehicle systems remove driver’s eyes from the road for no more than two seconds,” Dr Chaudhary said. “Research has shown that visual distraction lasting more than two seconds increases crash risk.”

Just to put that in perspective, Dr Chaudhary explained that the average time eyes are removed from the road to read a text message is just under five seconds — the equivalent of driving the length of a football field blindfolded if driving at 55 miles per hour — or half that length at about 30 miles an hour.

“But what is less often discussed is the role of cognitive blindness while driving,” he said. “Even when drivers have their eyes on the road, if they are focusing on a task— they are attempting to complete with their in-vehicle touch screen or voice recognition — they may not process the information their eyes see. This may be made worse when you become frustrated with a system, when, for instance, you are trying to get the car to understand that you don’t want the air conditioner set to 50 degrees but rather you want to tune the XM radio to channel 53.”

Even though in-car technology may have improved in recent years, it is not any less distracting because there are simply too many added functions unrelated to the core task of driving.

“Drivers want technology that’s safe and easy to use, but many features added to infotainment systems today are overly complex and frustrating to use,” said Lloyd Albert, AAA Northeast senior vice president of public and government affairs. “This frustration increases cognitive demand and increases the potential for distracted driving.”

Shared Findings

AAA has shared its findings with auto makers as a way to reduce driver distraction, improve the in-car system functionality and understand the demand they place on drivers.

“Vehicle manufactures follow rules by NHTSA but also need to keep the customers happy,” Dr Chaudhary said. “In this case they have created systems that may prevent visual distraction but may heighten cognitive distraction — not regulated by the government.”

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety commissioned the University of Utah to evaluate 30 new 2017 vehicles where drivers used voice commands, touch screens and other interactive technologies to make calls, send text messages, tune radios and program navigation — all while driving. The researchers studied the visual and cognitive demands and the time it took drivers to complete those tasks while driving.

Of all the features in new cars, programming navigation systems while driving was the most distracting task, taking an average of 40 seconds for drivers to complete.

In other study highlights:
*None of the 30 vehicle infotainment systems produced low demand, while 23 systems generated high or very high levels of demand on drivers. Only seven generated moderate demands.
*Many new in-car system features are too complex and are frustrating to use, which increases driver distraction;
*Most functions — sending text messages, checking social media, surfing the web — are unrelated to the core task of driving;
*Systems could easily be made safer if manufacturers followed 2012 Federal recommendations which call for locking out or disengaging features while the car is in motion.

“The university of Utah has a long history of the type of research they have done for AAA foundation,” Dr Chaudhary said. “They essentially measure speed and or accuracy of a secondary task — like identifying when a green light flashes in peripheral vision — while driving and operating the in-vehicle technology.”

While Dr Chaudhary said he is not sure the extent to which this measure correlates with crash risk, he agrees it is a good method to at least look at relative levels of distraction among different systems.

Individual briefs on all evaluated vehicles and systems are available on www.exchange.aaa.com and may be used to educate consumers about the existing system in their new car or to help them evaluate the system in their next vehicle purchase. Visit AAA.com/distraction to learn more.

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