When is a car's safety equipment not very safe? When its beeps and flashing lights are more distracting than helpful.
That may be more common than you think. A new study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that drivers often see new auto technology as frustrating and, on occasion, attention diverting. Among the technologies noted were the car's infotainment system, blind-spot monitoring system and drowsiness detector.
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"We anticipated older drivers would have more challenges,” says William J. Horrey, traffic-research group leader at the foundation. “But the design of the systems also presented challenges for all age groups.”
Even Subaru, which is consistently cited as the number 1 brand for safety by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and other major watchdogs, finds it hard to get the right level of technology into its cars.
"We try to think of technology away from the engineers’ angle,” explains Kenneth Lin, director of product management for Subaru of North America. “Our role is to look at it more from a customer's perspective — how someone reacts to beeps, flashing lights and other system warnings. If drivers don't bother using the features, they don't receive the benefits."
Some advice on how to get the most out of the latest safety tech without having it distract you:
Understand what you have
After you buy a car, have the salesperson give you a detailed demonstration of the technological systems. Ask questions, and don't be afraid to call the dealership later, or drive the car back over, as new questions arise. In the end, you may agree that some of this tech is helpful. “I used to loathe blind-spot monitoring — how it would beep or flash at you,” says Greg Kopf of CARiD.com, an aftermarket auto-parts retailer. “But once I spent some time learning it, I loved it."
Discover your on-off options
Ask if you can shut off unwanted technology in your car, advises auto journalist John O'Dell, founder of TheGreenCarGuy.com. Although automaker rules and state laws may prevent your dealership from disabling some features, Subaru's Lin points out that “the retailer would know exactly what could be done.”
Control your cellphone
Some people drive with their cellphone in the trunk or glove box to avoid the temptation to look at it. That's not always practical, especially as many drivers use their phones for navigation, Horrey says. Instead, he suggests that drivers review their phone's options and forward calls to voicemail when driving, or use cellphone technology that disables calls, texts and alerts when the car is in motion.