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Vehicle tech becoming a distraction for drivers, advocates say

Automakers have been working to address distraction issues, such as improvements to voice commands, but those can pose their own risks, said Robertson.

January 17, 2022   The Canadian Press

A driver sitting behind the wheel of a new vehicle could be scrolling through their Spotify app looking for the right album when they get an incoming call or text, only to have a warning bell go off about the outside temperature while their steering wheel vibrates because they’re drifting closer to the edge of their lane. All the while, they’re supposed to be on the lookout for pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles.

Automakers have been installing increasingly high-tech features and infotainment systems in vehicles, but that doesn’t mean they’re becoming safer.

The most high profile example is Tesla, which recently drew criticism for allowing video games to be played on the console while the vehicle is in motion. But even standard options like changing the music or using the navigation system can create serious distractions for drivers.

Given the lack of regulatory oversight into the issue, safety advocates are working to raise regulatory and consumer awareness about the risks of increasingly complex vehicle controls.

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“This is a major and an increasing issue,” said Ian Jack, head of public affairs at the Canadian Automobile Association. “It’s becoming increasingly challenging for people to manage these things inside their vehicle.”

Most of the features are likely fine on their own, but it’s the overall load on the driver that’s the problem, said Jack.

“The sheer quantity of potential distractions that technology is adding is really what the issue is.”

CAA is planning to soon launch a public awareness campaign to better inform drivers of the risks of distracted driving with a focus on so-called infotainment systems.

The campaign comes as distracted driving, which includes tasks such as eating, talking with passengers and using vehicle technology, has been a rising contributor to fatal and serious collisions.

The most recent statistics from the Traffic Injury Research Foundation show that as of 2018, distracted driving contributes to one in four fatal crashes.

That’s roughly on par with impaired driving, said Robyn Robertson, chief executive of the foundation, though in distracted driving the victims are less likely to be driver.

“Distracted driving is really even more of a concern because it’s other people who are at risk, other road users who are at risk, and more likely to be killed and injured.”

More complex infotainment systems could be contributing to the problem. Research by the University of Utah in collaboration with the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that infotainment systems in the vehicles from the 2018 study often put a very high demand on drivers through a combination of visual, mental, and time demands, with some tasks taking upwards of 48 seconds. Further research found that older drivers are especially prone to potential distractions from systems.

Automakers have been working to address distraction issues, such as improvements to voice commands, but those can pose their own risks, said Robertson.

Canada introduced guidelines in 2019 for limiting distractions from displays, but they’re not enforceable.

Transport Canada spokeswoman Sau Sau Liu said in a statement that the agency “encourages vehicle and electronics manufacturers to design devices that are compatible with safe driving and to follow all relevant safety guidelines and best practices.”


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