New cars offer drivers an array of built-in electronic wizardry: touch screens, internet, Facebook, texting options, videos, in-dash cellphones, gesture controls and program-while-you-drive navigation tools.
But a new University of Utah study finds they often “are just too distracting to actually be used safely,” says U. psychology professor David L. Strayer, who led the team of researchers.
“The real concern in terms of safety,” he says, “is that the average driver is going to assume, ‘Hey, it must be safe. Why would the car company put it in the car unless it was proven to be safe? It clearly isn’t.”
The team used volunteers driving around the straight roads of the Avenues area of Salt Lake City — at its posted 25 mph speed limit — to test how well they could use those various electronics in 30 models of 2017 cars. Researchers released findings Thursday for the study funded by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
“The new technology is much, much more concerning than what we were seeing with people just using their cellphones,” says Strayer, whose past work attracted international headlines for showing that cellphone use and texting while driving can be much more dangerous than drunken driving.
“Drivers’ eyes are off the road for long periods of time. They are engaged in really complex interactions,” he said about use of new ‘infotainment’ systems.
His team found that drivers using voice-based and touch-screen technology sometimes took their hands, eyes and mind off the road for more than 24 seconds to complete tasks.
And the risk of a crash doubles when a driver takes eyes off the road for just two seconds, according to previous research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
“Some of the cars we tested would allow people to do Facebook posts or read Facebook or surf the internet,” Strayer said. “They have touch screens. Some of the cars have 50 multifunction buttons with rotary dial and write-pads.”
He said the Tesla — when it is in autopilot mode, but when drivers are still supposed to monitor traffic conditions so they can react — can post a video on a dash monitor showing the car traveling on a rainbow-colored road as music plays and such things as cowbells appear along the way.
“A lot of the systems are so complex and frustrating that people just throw up their hands after a while and say, ’I spent all this money for a car with all these neat new features, and I can’t use any of them,’” Strayer said.
“So the kinds of things these cars are allowing don’t comply with NHTSA guidelines for visual and manual distraction. But those are voluntary guidelines.”
Strayer added that those guidelines “are pretty reasonable,” and include such things as “don’t program the navigation system [while driving], don’t allow people to send and receive text messages, don’t display all kinds of graphics on the screen, don’t interact with Facebook.”
He hopes aloud that the new research “will be a catalyst for car companies to make sure they identify what should be available in the car, rather than what could be available. Right now, it’s almost anything goes…. As soon as someone figures how to do it, they put it in the car.”
The research team developed an advanced rating scale to measure which tasks are the most distracting. It ranged from low to high demand. Low demand is equivalent to listening to the radio, while very high demand is equivalent to balancing a checkbook in your head while driving.
Strayer said researchers found systems in 11 of the 30 models tested “are right at the high-water mark” of distraction, and “12 were above that.”
The study found that programming navigation tools while driving was the most distracting task — taking drivers an average of 40 seconds to complete. Text messaging was the second-most-distracting. The tasks easiest to perform were audio entertainment, calling and dialing.
With increasingly complex systems, Strayer said, “We just haven’t learned the lessons from aviation in the 1950s, when we were making airplanes that were so confusing to use that people were crashing the planes all the time.”
He added, “Now we are just following that same path with cars, putting more and more technology at the fingertips of the driver that has nothing to do with driving the car.”
Strayer urges drivers to be “careful and not just assume that that suite of technology is safe or easy to use.” He hopes the research will help consumers “make a good decision about what vehicle and what technology in the vehicle are best for them.”
Other authors of the report are Joel M. Cooper, research associate professor; research associates Rachel M. Goethe, Madeleine M. McCarty and Douglas Getty; and Francesco Biondi, research assistant professor.