University of Utah researcher finds that smartphone programs are less distracting than the ones built into cars

(Photo courtesy of University of Utah) Volunteer participates in study on distracted driving caused by new infotainment systems in cars.

Google and Apple are better at building less-distracting vehicle “infotainment” systems than are car manufacturers, according to a study released Wednesday by the University of Utah and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

So the smartphone companies may be showing the way to eventually make safe the wide array of distracting electronic wizardry in new cars from touch screens to videos and gesture controls to programs-while-you-drive navigation tools.

“It does show that there’s a blueprint for making these systems safer,” said David Strayer, the lead researcher at the University of Utah.

He also led a study last year that concluded current car infotainment systems are just too distracting to be used safely while driving. Strayer made international headlines with past work that showed cellphone use and texting while driving can be much more dangerous than drunken driving.

The new study compared Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto with infotainment systems that came installed with several car makes.

It found that CarPlay and Android Auto were 24 percent (five seconds) faster on average than the vehicle systems for making phone calls, and 31 percent (15 seconds) faster when programming navigation.

The difference is critical because drivers who take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds double their risk of a crash.

“Manufacturers can look at how CarPlay and Android Auto are functioning and try to make their systems so they behave at a similar level,” Strayer said.

“Automakers are experts at building safer cars, but Google and Apple are more skilled at building safer vehicle infotainment technology,” said Marshall Doney, AAA’s president and CEO.

“By leveraging their strengths, the two industries must work together to significantly improve the design, functionality and safety of these technologies,” he said.

Strayer added in online interviews, “Android Auto and CarPlay allow a lot of features and functions that are easier to use than we typically find with a car when you first purchase it. Even so, some of those features are still too distracting.”

(Photo courtesy of University of Utah) David L. Strayer, University of Utah psychology professor, who led a study on distracted driving caused by new infotainment systems in cars.

He said, “Remember that the primary job of the driver is to pay attention to the road,” and even the better systems “may be distracting to the drivers to levels that are still unsafe.”

Strayer especially warns about using two functions that require too much focus while driving: programming navigation systems and texting. “Even though they can be done while the car is in motion, it’s not necessarily safe to do so. Just because the vehicle allows you to do it, doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

The research said cars have changed radically in the past few years. “What we are seeing right now are touch screesn, heads-up displays, gesture controls and voice controls that are just in many cases too distracting” and are trending to become even more complex rather than simple.

“We are going in the wrong direction. What used to be a simple button press or a turn of a knob is now a complex interaction that may go wrong,” he said. “Sometimes simple knobs and buttons are easier and better to use.”

AAA urges drivers not to use in-vehicle ihfotainment technology to perfom non-driving-related tasks while in motion.

Distracted driving is responsible for more than 390,000 injuries and 3,500 deaths a year, AAA says.

The Utah Department of Public Safety said that in 2016, distracted driving caused 5,748 crashes in Utah with 3,303 people injured and 27 deaths. It estimates that 9 percent of all Utah crashes involve a distracted driver.

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