Back in the day, you had a car radio. It was the model of simplicity: Press one of the five preprogrammed rectangular buttons and you’re rewarded with a satisfying mechanical clunk and a change of stations. You might even have had an eight-track or cassette player. Again, minimal interplay with the device, but now you’re in stereo.
Fast forward to the auto infotainment systems of today. There’s a barrage of information and entertainment: map directions, news, songs streaming from Spotify, phone calls, texts. And there’s much more interaction with the system, be it through voice or swiping or clicking on virtual buttons.
These in-vehicle infotainment systems were supposed to make driving safer by minimizing the amount of physical interaction with the system; simple voice commands, wireless headsets, hands-free operation. However, they appear to be making driving more dangerous.
A recent study by U.K. road safety charity I Am Road Smart would appear to support that claim. Safety consultancy TRL put drivers in a simulator for three runs through a road simulation: Once without an infotainment system, once using only voice control, and one using only touch control. It’s no surprise that infotainment systems caused distraction levels to go higher. What was astounding was the extent to which it affected reaction time.
While a driver drinking to the legal limit would experience a 12% increase in reaction time (for typical drivers one second) and cannabis smokers 21%, touch control for users of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay saw their reaction times increase by 53 and 57%, respectively. That’s higher than texting (35%) and cannabis use combined. Some underestimated the time they took their eyes off the road by five seconds.
In addition to the hazard to human life on the road, distracted driving can increase auto insurance rates. A distracted driving conviction will increase your car insurance by 15% to 25%. Furthermore, an insurer may deny you coverage if you have such a conviction on your driving record, and a conviction remains on your driving record for three years.
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Are technological advancements in vehicles making matters worse?
“We were shocked,” says Neil Greig, policy and research director for U.K.-based automotive communications agency Red Marlin. “Having conducted a series of similar tests on smartphones, we expected a similar rate of distraction to that, but it turned out to be worse. Intrinsically, we had thought that using a car’s integrated large screen would be safer than a small phone in a cradle, but this did not turn out to be the case.”
“New systems are making it easier to be distracted,” says Paul Kovacs, Road Safety Ambassador for RATESDOTCA. And distracted driving is definitely on the radar of Canadians.
According to a survey conducted by RATESDOTCA, 40% of Canadians believe distracted driving is the No. 1 cause of road deaths in Canada, compared to 33% who blamed impaired driving.
If you’re not familiar with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, they are apps downloaded to your mobile phone. When connected to a compatible system in a vehicle, you have access to all of your smartphone features.
“Every new piece of technology that enters a vehicle, since the introduction of the radio, presents a new potential distraction for the driver,” says Greig. “As technology advances — all forms of in-car technology, not only personal music — we must ensure that we aren’t overloading the driver and we must constantly review what research and legislation are in place to prevent this. It is also important that such systems are not marketed as ‘safe’ alternatives if this isn’t the case.”
Auto manufacturers need to make changes
Playing music isn’t the issue, says Kovacs. There’s the physical distraction — reaching over to press a virtual button, averting your eyes from the road, reading a screen. Then there’s the cognitive distraction, which is why hands-free phone calls are also distracting: Your mind is occupied by the phone call, not the task of driving. According to the study, a hands-free phone call increases reaction time by 27%, while a hand-held phone call increases reaction time by 47%.
“Manufacturers need to be talking to consumers about their new interior designs and human-machine interfaces in a much more open way,” Grieg says. While the study is getting worldwide exposure through I Am Road Smart’s affiliation with Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA),” Grieg says. “We intend to keep up the pressure on regulators and carmakers to work with us to develop less distracting systems before it is too late. If new systems are not improved, they risk undermining the full potential benefits of driver assistance systems.”
Awareness of the dangers of distracted driving grows
In the meantime, perhaps the solution sits in the passenger seat. According to the RATESDOTCA survey, 20% of passengers have spoken up about distracted driving and demanded the driver stop the risky behaviour. About 23% said they have intervened to stop an impaired driver.
“Canadians are really concerned about distracted driving and are starting to speak up,” Kovacs said.
That’s a good thing, too. The best way to keep your auto insurance affordable and stay safe is to keep your eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, and drive defensively.