AAA: Vehicle infotainment systems create distractions for drivers

Most drivers are well aware of how texting or using a cell phone behind the wheel can be dangerous. But a new study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety suggests that the infotainment systems built into new vehicles can be significantly distracting.

"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," said David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "When an in-vehicle technology is not properly designed, simple tasks for drivers can become complicated and require more effort from drivers to complete."

In-vehicle computer systems can complete a number of tasks such as setting up navigation to a destination, playing audio entertainment, placing phone calls, and reading or composing text messages. Although audio entertainment and phone tasks could be completed more quickly, other tasks took a considerable amount of time to complete.

Researchers found that programming an in-vehicle system to navigate a route visually or mentally distracted a driver for an average of about 40 seconds, while using the system to send a text message caused an average of 30 seconds of distraction. AAA says previous research has determined that looking away from the road for just two seconds doubles a driver's risk of a crash.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety commissioned University of Utah researchers for the study. They sought to analyze the visual and cognitive demand of a variety of tasks and determine how long it took to complete each task.

A total of 120 drivers between the ages of 21 and 36 took part in the study. Researchers tested the infotainment systems in 30 different 2017 model year vehicles. Each vehicle offered up to three different ways to use the system, including voice commands, a center stack display, or center console controls.

Drivers traveled along a two-mile residential route with low traffic and a speed limit of 25 miles per hour. Participants drove along the route while performing a variety of tasks as instructed by a researcher.

AAA created a scale ranging from low demand to very high demand for the level of complexity of the tasks to complete. The low end of the scale was equal to listening to the radio, while very high demand was deemed to be the equivalent of balancing a checkbook while driving. AAA said infotainment systems should not exceed a low level of demand.

None of the infotainment systems tested put low levels of demand on a driver's attention. Twelve systems produced very high demand, 11 created high demand, and seven generated moderate demand.

"Drivers want technology that is safe and easy to use, but many of the features added to infotainment systems today have resulted in overly complex and sometimes frustrating user experiences for drivers," said Marshall Doney, president and CEO of AAA.

Tasks related to tuning the radio or navigation created more visual distraction than dialing a phone number of composing a text message. While using audio commands reduced visual distraction, it also increased the length of time needed to complete a task. Researchers found that center console systems were the most demanding, while center stack systems were the least demanding.

AAA recommended that drivers program a navigation route before starting their drive. It also said drivers should not use an infotainment system to send or receive text messages, even if this function is available.

"Some of the latest systems on the market now include functions unrelated to the core task of driving, like sending text messages, checking social media, or surfing the web – tasks we have no business doing behind the wheel," said Doney. "Automakers should aim to reduce distractions by designing systems that are no more visually or mentally demanding than listening to the radio or an audiobook. And drivers should avoid the temptation to engage with these technologies, especially for non-driving tasks."

AAA said that the safety of most systems could be improved by adopting voluntary guidelines established in 2012 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. These guidelines advised automakers to have their infotainment systems block the use of text messaging, social media, and programming navigation when the vehicle is in motion.

"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," said Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research at AAA. "Drivers should only use these technologies for legitimate emergencies or urgent, driving related purposes."

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