A researcher documents the distraction of a study participant who is using a vehicle infotainment system. Photo courtesy of AAA.

A researcher documents the distraction of a study participant who is using a vehicle infotainment system. Photo courtesy of AAA.

New vehicle infotainment systems take drivers’ eyes and attention off the road — and hands off the wheel — for potentially dangerous periods of time, according to new research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

During the study, drivers using in-vehicle technologies such as voice-based and touch-screen features were visually and mentally distracted for more than 40 seconds when completing such tasks as programming navigation or sending a text message, AAA said. And removing eyes from the road for just two seconds doubles the risk for a crash, according to previous research.

With one in three U.S. adults using infotainment systems while driving, AAA cautions that using these technologies while behind the wheel can have dangerous consequences. AAA said it conducted this new research to help automakers and system designers improve the functionality of new infotainment systems and lower the demand they place on drivers.

“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 Dr. 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.” 

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety commissioned researchers from the University of Utah to examine the visual (eyes off road) and cognitive (mental) demand as well as the time it took drivers to complete a task using the infotainment systems in 30 new 2017 vehicles. Study participants were required to use voice command, touch screen and other interactive technologies to make a call, send a text message, tune the radio or program navigation — all while driving down the road.

Programming navigation proved to be the most distracting task, taking an average of 40 seconds for drivers to complete. At 25 mph, a vehicle can travel the length of four football fields during the time a driver can spend entering a destination in navigation — all while distracted from the important task of driving. Programming navigation while driving was available in 12 of the 30 vehicle systems tested.

None of the 30 vehicle infotainment systems produced low demand, while 23 systems generated high or very high levels of demand on drivers, according to the study.


Source: AAA Foundation study.

Source: AAA Foundation study.

“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, AAA’s president and CEO.

Frustration arising from unsatisfactory use of these systems increases cognitive demand and raises the potential for distracted driving, researchers found.

“AAA has met with interested auto manufacturers and suppliers to discuss our findings. We welcome the opportunity to meet with other interested parties to discuss the report’s recommendations and ways to mitigate driver distraction,” Doney added.

According to a new AAA public opinion survey, nearly 70% of U.S. adults say they want the new technology in their vehicle, but only 24% feel that the technology already works perfectly.

“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,” Doney said. “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.”

Researchers developed a rating scale to measure the visual (eyes off road) and cognitive (mental) demands and the time it took drivers to complete a task using each vehicle’s infotainment system. The scale ranged from low to very high levels of 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. According to AAA, a safe in-vehicle technology system should not exceed a low level of demand. 

Researchers concluded that most infotainment systems tested could easily be made safer by simply following federal recommendations, such as locking out text messaging, social media and programming navigation while the car is in motion. In 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a set of voluntary safety guidelines advising automakers to block access to such tasks when vehicles are not parked.

“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 and 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.”

A total of 120 drivers ages 21-36 participated in the study. They drove 30 new 2017 model-year vehicles. The latest report is the fifth phase of distraction research from AAA’s Center for Driving Safety and Technology.

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