Surprise! Car infotainment systems are a distraction for drivers

Sources of distraction
© AAA

We hear so much about the carnage caused by those distracted pedestrians looking at smart phones or listening to music. But there is rarely a peep about how car infotainment systems get more elaborate and complicated and take up more dashboard and mind space.

Maybe that is changing, now that a new study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety finds that gee, in-vehicle technology can create dangerous distractions for drivers.

AAA’s latest research, evaluated the infotainment systems in 30 new 2017 vehicles. Specifically, the study focused on the visual (eyes off road) and cognitive (mental) demand as well as the time it took drivers to complete a task. Study participants were required to use voice commands, touch screens and other interactive technologies to make a call, send a text message, tune the radio or program navigation, all while driving down the road.

The study found that cars varied in the degree of distraction, and the danger of different distractions. Using a navigation system while driving, a totally legal thing to do, takes an average of 40 seconds for a driver to complete.

Tesla distraction© AAA

We have complained about the Tesla display shown at top of the post before, and it turns out to be a good thing that the car drives itself.

The Tesla Model S 75 infotainment system generated a very high demand rating in the study. The system was very highly demanding on drivers when placing phone calls, tuning the audio system and programming the navigation. Interacting with the infotainment system leads to very high distraction from the forward roadway.

So many of the cars have complex menu structures, frustrating and non-intuitive systems, and very high cognitive demands. Toyotas appear to come off better than others, making moderate demands on drivers. Generally the more expensive cars came off worse than more economical models, although the Mazda 3 and Subarus placed very high demands on drivers. (I have a Subaru and can barely manage the info system from the passenger seat.)

The AAA complains:

Today’s new features make placing a phone call or changing the radio more complicated by requiring drivers to maneuver through complex menu systems using touch screens or voice commands rather than use of simple knobs or buttons. Many of the latest systems also now allow drivers to perform tasks unrelated to driving like surfing the web, checking social media or sending a text message- all things drivers have no business doing behind the wheel.

The AAA is quoted in AP as urging drivers to use these technologies “only for legitimate emergencies or urgent, driving-related purposes.”

Meanwhile, Honda has introduced CabinWatch & CabinTalk so that you can press a button on the screen while you are driving and tell your kids to stop fighting, or you can hit another button to spy on them instead of looking at the road. The distractions are getting more and more sophisticated and intrusive.

And of course, there is little regulation of this; According to AP, “under pressure from the industry, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2012 issued voluntary safety guidelines to automakers for dashboard technology instead of enforceable safety standards.”

We have discussed this issue on TreeHugger before (of course!) and made some recommendations including:

Simplify and standardize or even eliminate entertainment systems.
This is not your living room, it is transportation. They should be consistent and as intuitive as shifting gears, where pretty much the same PRN pattern is used by everyone, and we have seen what happens when manufacturers mess with it.

The AAA makes a good recommendation too:

Visual and mental attention is key to safe driving, yet many technologies can cause drivers to lose sight and focus of the road ahead….Just because a technology is available in your vehicle, does not mean it is safe to use while driving.


While this post was being written, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released the data for 2016, showing a 5.6 percent increase in fatalities over 2015. Pedestrian deaths increased by 9 percent to the highest number since 1990. 3,450 deaths are directly attributed to distracted driving but it is probably much higher. Perhaps we should fix that before we worry so much about what the kids are wearing.

Tags: Transportation

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