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Is New Car Tech Driving You to Distraction?

Some infotainment systems require as much focus as balancing a checkbook

AAA Distracted Driving study technology

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A new AAA study found that complex infotainment systems may be making the roads more dangerous.

En español | Those whiz-bang tech bells and whistles in your new car are cool and all — but they also may be keeping your eyes off the road for dangerously long stretches of time.

That’s according to a new study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which found that the information and entertainment systems in many new cars can distract drivers for as long as 40-plus seconds at a time. According to AAA, removing your eyes from the road for only two seconds doubles the risk of an accident. The study, conducted for AAA by researchers from the University of Utah, took both voice-based and touch screen features into account, gauging the visual and cognitive demands required to operate infotainment systems in 30 new 2017 vehicles.

Participants were tasked with using interactive technologies to make a phone call, send a text message, find a radio station and program the navigation system, all while driving. Navigation proved to be the most time intensive, requiring drivers to take their eyes off the road for an average of 40 seconds. In that time, a car driving at 25 miles per hour would travel the length of four football fields — essentially driving blind. Though some automakers address this distraction by disabling navigation programming while the car is in motion, nearly half of the models tested allowed it.

The study rated the distractibility level of the infotainment systems from “low demand,” which researchers equated to listening to the radio, to “very high demand,” which they likened to balancing a checkbook while driving. The infotainment systems in a dozen of the cars studied generated “very high-demand” levels of distraction; 18 others generated levels that were either “high” or “moderate." None of the cars had systems that registered as "low demand."

AAA estimates that 1 in every 3 drivers on the road uses an infotainment system while driving. A recent survey showed that while almost 70 percent of U.S. adults say they want such new technology in their car, less than one-quarter of them are happy with the way it works. Frustration in operating the systems, the study found, also increases cognitive demand on the driver and can lead to distraction.

AAA hopes the results of the study will lead car manufacturers to develop infotainment systems that place less demand on drivers.

“Some of the latest systems on the market now include functions unrelated to the core task of driving, like sending text messages, checking social media or surfing the web — tasks we have no business doing behind the wheel,” said AAA President and CEO Marshall Doney. “Automakers should aim to reduce distractions by designing systems that are no more visually or mentally demanding than listening to the radio or an audiobook.”

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