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

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.

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