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Auto infotainment systems are making driving more dangerous

April 29, 2024
4 mins
A young man uses the infotainment system in his car

This article has been updated from a previous version.

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 through simple voice commands, wireless headsets, and hands-free operation.

However, they appear to be making driving more dangerous.

A recent study by U.K. road safety advocacy group 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.

Read more: Will a distracted driving ticket make it harder to get insurance?

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, the executive director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at Western University.

And distracted driving is definitely on the radar of Canadians.

According to a survey conducted by RATESDOTCA, 65% of Canadians believe distracted driving is the No. 1 cause of road deaths in Canada, compared to 34% who blamed impaired driving.

Read next: Distracted driving laws across Canada and how the offence impacts your car insurance rate

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.

The study is getting worldwide exposure through I Am Road Smart’s affiliation with Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), but there’s much more to be done to curb the trend of distracted driving.

“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,” says Greig. “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

With most drivers identifying distracted driving as the greatest cause for collisions, many say they're aware of the behaviors that lead to dangerous driving.

According to the RATESDOTCA survey, 74% of drivers identified checking text messages while driving as risky behavior. Additionally, 41% considered using geo-navigation as distracted driving and 65% considered fiddling with the infotainment dashboard equally risky.

Canadians can reduce the risk of distractions by turning phone notifications to silent and ensure in-vehicle voices don't block external cues. It is also recommended that drivers load their music and GPS locations to their dashboards before driving and to keep distracting items out of reach.

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.

Learn more: How to avoid a fatal auto accident

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Dave Webb

Dave Webb is a writer and editor of 30 years’ experience. He has written about municipal politics, conservation issues, information technology, medical technology, music, and the manmade diamond industry along with insurance. And some sports. He is also an avid semi-professional roots musician. He lives in Toronto.

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