Infotainment Systems in Cars Are Distractions for All, but Even More So for Older Drivers

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Hmm, should I be looking at this or at the road?. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Back in the '60s, my grandmother totaled her Plymouth by hitting the wrong button on a fancy new Chrysler PowerFlite with its pushbutton transmission. She wasn't alone in doing this, and soon Chrysler returned to the lever on the steering column, "where God meant it to be" as one engineer put it. Chrysler had discovered that people do things by habit, so it makes sense to have a standard way of doing things.

Now that car radios have given way to "in-vehicle information systems (IVIS)" everyone has had to learn how to use this technology, and it can be daunting. The AAA Foundation studied how long it took people to use these systems and found:

New in-vehicle infotainment technology has the potential to increase comfort and extend mobility for older drivers, but first it has to stop distracting them. On average, older drivers (ages 55-75) removed their eyes and attention from the road for more than eight seconds longer than younger drivers (ages 21-36) when performing simple tasks like programming navigation or tuning the radio using in-vehicle infotainment technology.

But really, the results are shocking no matter your age. They tested the drivers by having them do "highly demanding visual tasks" while driving down a two-mile stretch of quiet street.

Four types of tasks were evaluated using the different systems and modes of interaction, including (a) selecting or programming music, (b) calling and dialing, (c) text messaging, and (d) programming a destination in the navigation system.
time it takes to do things
Everyone is taking far too long to do these tasks. (Photo: AAA foundation)

It's true that the older drivers didn't perform as well as the younger drivers, but nobody who's driving should be doing these things in the first place. Before, you could tune a radio by feel alone, turning the knobs and pressing the preset buttons. Now it's often a complicated touchscreen, which is hard to do at any age, especially when you're supposed to be looking at the road.

car warning message
Even the car acknowledges that you shouldn't be looking at this screen. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

AAA recommends simpler systems, better voice recognition, getting rid of the complex center consoles, designing system controls that let you keep your eyes on the road, all of which "would better meet the needs of older adults and make the systems safer for all drivers."

"This is a design problem, not an age problem," said Jake Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety advocacy and research. "Designing systems to meet the safety and comfort needs of aging drivers would benefit all of us today, and for years to come."

AAA makes some useful suggestions, including simply not using these systems while driving, practicing when not driving to get really familiar, and "Avoid vehicles that require use of a center console controller when using the infotainment system. These kinds of systems are especially distracting, and potentially dangerous."

This isn't the only study that found these systems were a problem, and it's not just older drivers, though it is worse for them. According to Reuters,

"We know from prior work that younger drivers are struggling," said study coauthor David Strayer, a professor and director of the Center for the Prevention of Distracted Driving at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. "We found that older drivers take their eyes off the road for longer when they are trying to interact with this technology."
Apple CarPlay
That looks like my iPhone on the dashboard. (Photo: Smoothgrover22 [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)

This may all become less of a problem over time as car manufacturers dump their proprietary systems and sign on to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, where the infotainment system becomes an extension of your phone, with the same buttons that everyone is already used to. But then it begs the question: if you're not supposed to use your phone while driving, why should you be able to use your dashboard's infotainment system?

Our Subaru Impreza has a proprietary system that's anything but intuitive. We treat it like a car radio when driving alone, leaving it on one station all the time. When we're both in the car, I manage the infotainment and my wife drives, which is an appropriate division of labor given that she's a better driver and I'm a better computer nerd — and it's just too complicated to do both.

Chrysler PowerFlite pushbutton transmission. (Photo: Historianbuff [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

Like the old transmission lever on the steering wheel, these systems should be intuitive and easy to use for everyone of every age. And if you can't use them without taking your eyes off the road, maybe they're just not ready for prime time and should go the way of the PowerFlite.