Monday, October 09, 2017

Car Infotainment Distractions Can Be Deadly

A study just released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows that many 2017-model cars have infotainment features that can dangerously distract drivers.  Such distractions may be an important reason why, after declining for years, the annual car-fatality rate in the U. S. rose in 2016.

A report in the Washington Post describes how University of Utah researcher David Strayer led a study involving about 30 different 2017-model vehicles, ranging from a Ford F250s to a Tesla Model S.  Test subjects performed infotainment-feature-related  tasks while being monitored in various ways, and while also having to push a button every time a buzzer went off.  The delay between the buzzer and the button-pushing has been found to be a good indication of how distracted the driver is.  And while all this was going on, the subjects were driving down a low-traffic residential street, so the whole experiment was conducted during real-life driving.

The findings were not encouraging.  Some tasks, such as programming a navigation system, took an average of 40 seconds to do. Some vehicles were twice as demanding as others on average, based on a rating called the "overall demand," which included a variety of visual and cognitive tasks. 

The Post article quotes AAA chief executive Marshall Doney as saying that there are some things we have no business doing while behind the wheel.  The U. S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued guidelines to automakers in 2012, asking them to block certain kinds of tasks involving infotainment systems unless the vehicle is parked.  But this call has gone largely unheeded.

It's interesting that the two vehicles with the most demanding electronics were the Honda Ridgeline, Honda's answer to US-brand luxury pickups, and the Volvo Inscription, another luxury passenger car.  Among the cars with the less-demanding systems were the Ford F-250 pickup and the Chevrolet Equinox.  It begins to look like this problem is a side effect of carmakers' attempts to load up their vehicles with many-featured electronics in the higher-end models especially.  The practice of piling on new software features, whether useful or not, is familiar to anyone who has used computers recently, which basically means everybody. 

It's one thing to sit at your desk and fume at Excel for burying a function you liked in an avalanche of newer features that you find largely useless.  But it's quite another thing to be driving on an LA freeway and trying to program your next real-estate appointment address into your GPS system at the same time.  As unwise as such an action is, people will do it, and get away with it too, at least for a while. 

The car manufacturers face a dilemma.  The IT features of a car are sometimes one of the main things that set a vehicle apart from the competition, so you can't expect the carmakers to stop trying to offer newer and more exciting infotainment features. 

But safety can get lost in the shuffle.  A car company can either install lock-out technology that just flat prevents the user from doing time-and-attention-intensive tasks while driving, or the firm can simply warn the consumer not to do such things while in motion.  Most companies have taken the latter course, with the excuse that if people do stupid things, well, we told them not to do that, so you can't blame us. 

In other areas of human endeavor, this approach has been tried and found wanting.  In the field of occupational health and safety, for example, workplaces in factories used to be extremely dangerous, with bare moving belts and moving parts everywhere.  Employees were simply warned to stay out of harm's way, but that wasn't always possible, and a lot of people got killed.  With the advent of workmens' compensation insurance and government supervisory agencies such as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), attitudes changed.  Now employers largely accept the responsibility for building in safety in their plants with shields, safety interlocks, and procedures that approach being foolproof in many cases.  No small part of this change is due to pressure brought to bear on miscreant manufacturers by insurance companies that got tired of paying out premiums to workers injured at needlessly hazardous plants.

It may be that auto insurance companies will need to play a role in making sure that infotainment features don't distract drivers to death.  When you realize that only a certain fraction of cars on the road are replaced with new ones every year, the suspicious upward trend in car fatalities becomes even more ominous.  One wonders what would happen if everybody like me (our newest car is a dozen years old) bought a new car and started trying to use the navigation system in an injudicious way. 

I don't know whether auto insurance rates vary much from vehicle to vehicle based on the model's safety record, but if a prospective buyer learned that the bells-and-whistles luxury model he was about to buy carried a huge insurance price tag, he might hesitate.  And the carmaker might do something about installing a gentle form of lockout, making it at least inconvenient to use some of the more demanding features while actually driving, which would make the insurance companies happier.

What is generally regarded as the first fatality in an autonomous (self-driving) vehicle—the crash that killed Joshua Brown—occurred allegedly while Brown had set his Tesla Model S in self-driving mode and was watching a video.  Admittedly, this is carrying distracted "driving" to the extreme, and was against the manufacturer's instructions.  But it shows that if a system allows the driver to do a stupid thing, somebody somewhere will eventually do it, and sometimes with dire results.

No movie, song, or GPS information is worth a person's life.  Carmakers need to realize that they are undermining a decades-long trend of improved car safety with the fancy gizmos they are shipping with each new vehicle.  If the average consumer isn't smart enough to avoid the new hazards, something else needs to be done.  Voluntary compliance with the 2012 NHTSA lockout guidelines would be nice.  But if history is any guide, automakers may need the encouragement of laws and regulations to implement new electronic infotainment features that are both attractive and safe to use.

Sources:  The Washington Post carried the article by Ashley Halsey III, "New cars have more distracting technology on board than ever before," in the October 3, 2017 online edition at  I also referred to the original AAA report, "Visual and cognitive demands of using in-vehicle infotainment systems," which is available at  My blog on the Joshua Brown accident appeared at on July 4, 2016.

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