Driven to Distraction: The Danger in your Display Panel

For years the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been pushing for tighter set of guidelines to address the growing problem of driver distraction.  They point to the growing problem on our country’s roads: technology-induced distracted driving. We all know about the ‘hands-free’ rules that have been in effect in most states for the past eight years or so, but a car’s central display panel, where the car’s climate control, audio controls, entertainment settings, navigation and communications all take place, packs just as much computing power as a smartphone, but has no regulatory oversight. In other words, fiddling with a car’s display is just as distracting for a driving as engaging with your smartphone.

A new study released by AAA shows just how dangerous and distracting ‘Infotainment Systems’ in new cars can be. Indeed, with Wi-Fi connectivity, email and text functionality, climate and navigation features, the average driver needs more time searching for and finding the buttons and dials they want to interact with. Researchers at AAA and the University of Utah developed a rating scale to measure the visual (eyes off road) and cognitive (mental) demands and the time it took to complete a task experienced by drivers using each vehicle’s infotainment system. The scale ranged from low to very high levels of attention demand. A low level of demand equates to listening to the radio or an audiobook, while very high demand is equivalent to trying to balance a checkbook while driving. AAA believes a safe in-vehicle technology system should not exceed a low level of demand. The problem, of course, is that consumers are asking for the latest and greatest technology in today’s new cars, so auto manufacturers are trying to find the balance.

Dr. David Yang is the executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and a major contributor to the research. He said, “Some in-vehicle technology can create unsafe situations for drivers on the road by increasing the time they spend with their eyes and attention off the road and hands off the wheel. When an in-vehicle technology is not properly designed, simple tasks for drivers can become complicated and require more effort from drivers to complete.”

“These are solvable problems. By following NHTSA’s voluntary guidelines to lock out certain features that generate high demand while driving, automakers can significantly reduce distraction,” said Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of Traffic Safety Advocacy & Research. “AAA cautions drivers that just because a technology is available while driving does not mean it is safe or easy to use when behind the wheel. Drivers should only use these technologies for legitimate emergencies or urgent driving-related purposes.”

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