In-car technology sends distracted drivers down rocky road

WASHINGTON • It is illegal in 47 states in America, but too many people are addicted. It is restricted in 15 states, but it happens in broad daylight and hardly anyone gets caught in the act. It is condemned even by some of the people who do it.

With that in mind, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has been studying how to minimise the driving distractions that kill 3,500 people and injure 390,000 in crashes in the United States every year. What they found, in a study presented on Wednesday, is that carmakers are not necessarily the best at deciding what to install in their vehicles.

"What we've been studying for the last three or four years is the explosion to technology in the vehicle - hundreds of buttons, touchscreens, gesture controls, heads-up displays, voice commands," said Dr David Strayer, author of the study. "Our concern is that in many cases the driver will assume that if it's put in the vehicle and it's enabled to be used while the vehicle's in motion, then it must be safe. That's just simply not true."

The AAA Foundation commissioned Dr Strayer, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah, to compare two aftermarket modes of communication with the ones the manufacturers install in their cars on the assembly line.

He found that Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto shaved seconds that could prove crucial from the time a driver was distracted when compared to the "infotainment" the car came with. He found that drivers were able to get their eyes back on the road with the two aftermarket devices five seconds faster when making a call and 15 seconds faster when programming the navigation system.

"If you start to take your eyes off the road for more than two seconds, you start to see the crash risk increase," Dr Strayer said. "The matter of time it takes to read a text is about 41/2 seconds, so the shorter the interaction and the easier the interaction, the less it competes with driving."

Sending text messages while driving is illegal in all but three states (Montana, Arizona and Missouri). Calling someone on a hand-held cellphone while driving is banned in 15 states. And 38 states ban cellphone use by younger drivers.

AAA's own survey earlier this year found that 58 per cent of drivers thought people talking on their cellphones were a "very serious threat" to their safety and 78 per cent said texting was a significant danger, but almost half of them admitted to making calls and 35 per cent said they had sent a text or e-mail.

Another survey by Root Insurance in April, the Distracted Driving Awareness month, said 80 per cent of drivers admitted to using a mobile device, a third said texting was one of their biggest distractions behind the wheel, 25 per cent use social media and 20 per cent said they have to check their phone at least every 30 minutes while driving.

Erie Insurance teamed up with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety on a study that analysed the data kept by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to draw a picture of distracted driving.

Simple daydreaming was the cause of 61 per cent of fatal distracted crashes, they found. Cellphone use ranked second at 14 per cent. Rubbernecking, talking with someone in the car, fiddling with some other device, adjusting the heating or eating all ranked in the single digits.

"AAA is under no circumstances recommending one (aftermarket) system over another," said Mr Jake Nelson, AAA's director of traffic safety advocacy. "Neither Apple CarPlay nor Android Auto or any of the systems provided by vehicle manufacturers meet our requirement of being no more demanding than listening to the radio."

He added: "If the industry continues to say safety is a top priority, they will follow the recommendations of the federal government to lock out certain actions like the ability to programme navigation while driving down the road or to send text messages while driving, and that has not happened among many of the vehicle manufacturers."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2018, with the headline 'In-car technology sends distracted drivers down rocky road'. Subscribe