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Infotainment Systems May Cause 'Potentially Dangerous' Distractions

by Sam Chase
It's easy to forget that not that long ago, the dashboard space between the driver and passenger seats was occupied by a radio that required turning the dial just so in order to get a particular station to come in clearly.

Today, the infotainment systems inside connected cars can navigate around traffic jams, conduct telephone calls and deliver entertainment options, from podcasts to satellite radio to streaming music services.

But as convenient as infotainment systems are, they still require attention from drivers to operate, and that can lead to dangerous distractions, according to new research released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

"Some in-vehicle technology can create unsafe situations for drivers on the road by increasing the time they spend with their eyes and attention off the road and hands off the wheel," Executive Director Dr. David Yang in a wrote in a statement. "When an in-vehicle technology is not properly designed, simple tasks for drivers can become complicated and require more effort from drivers to complete."

AAA's study looked at 30 vehicle infotainment systems, and ranked each on a range from "low demand," the level of distraction imposed on a driver by listening to music or an audiobook, to "very high" demand, which is the equivalent of trying to balance a checkbook while driving.

The results were discouraging. Twelve of the systems tested were rated very high demand, 11 were classified as high demand, and seven were deemed moderate demand. No system was classified as low demand, the standard that AAA recommends for all infotainment systems comply with.

"These are solvable problems. By following NHTSA's voluntary guidelines to lock out certain features that generate high demand while driving, automakers can significantly reduce distraction," Jake Nelson, AAA's director of Traffic Safety Advocacy & Research, noted. "AAA cautions drivers that just because a technology is available while driving does not mean it is safe or easy to use when behind the wheel. Drivers should only use these technologies for legitimate emergencies or urgent, driving related purposes."

As we know from other public education campaigns about distracted driving, such as texting while driving, the stakes are extremely high when people don't pay attention behind the wheel. And using an infotainment system is not inherently less distracting than using a cell phone. AAA found that completing tasks like sending a text message or programming a navigation system can take as long as 40 seconds for a driver, a time during which a car will travel the distance of four football fields -- and that's only going 25 miles per hour. The number of opportunities for disaster during these distracted time frames is scarily high.

The AAA Traffic Foundation for Safety isn't advocating that infotainment systems be eliminated entirely, merely that they be modified to prevent drivers from acting on their worst impulses. In the meantime, drivers should take it upon themselves to exercise restraint. There's no excuse for texting while driving, and activities like programming navigation systems and organizing a playlist should be done before a trip begins.


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