McCann's Motors - Fatal Distraction?

Richard McCann asks, are advanced driver ‘aids’ actually causing accidents?


Many of you will have noticed the increased number of so-called driver-assistance aids being incorporated into the computers-on-wheels that we drive nowadays.

But can these systems be blamed for driver disengagement? Californian journalist Sami Haj-Assaad has alerted me to a new study from Virginia Tech Transportation Institute which looks at how most car makers have swapped traditional dashboard controls with buttons, for touchscreens, over the past five years.

While digital instrument panels can be a boon because they allow a wider range of information to be displayed directly in front of the driver, the same can’t be said for touchscreens, which are generally more fiddly and time-consuming to use on the move. 

A car covers 13.5 metres per second when motoring at only 30mph so a driver spending a not-unusual 42 seconds fighting the touchscreen instead of looking at the road, will have travelled the length of almost six football pitches in that time. How scary is that?

Safety Questioned
The safety of in-car touchscreens has already been questioned by safety campaigners, while Highways England has also raised concerns about the use of them. Although you operate them in a similar way to smartphones, nothing has been done to restrict the use of them while driving. Yet anyone caught using a handheld mobile can be fined at least £200 and get six penalty points!
The number of collisions caused by driver distraction is rising each year. According to Department for Transport data it accounted for 15% of accidents in 2018, compared to 13% in 2016 and 14% in 2017. And when you focus on fatal collisions, distraction of some sort contributes to 25% of incidents. 

In one incident a driver crashed in the rain when his Tesla automatically started its wipers but required the driver to manually control the speed through the large central touchscreen, rather than a lever on the steering wheel. In this case, the driver had to navigate software menus and then choose from one of five settings, after touching an icon. Understandably, you may think, the driver veered out of his lane while distracted with the console, driving up an embankment and into some trees. He was punished under the same rules as using a phone while driving. The Court acknowledged that the Tesla setup required "significantly more attention from the driver" than a traditional lever setup, but said it was still up to drivers to keep their eyes on the road.

Eyes Away from the Road
The Virginia Tech report backed up the judge, reporting that users of these new tech systems were more likely to speed and engage in what the researchers called “judgement errors”. The study found that when these driver aids were active, some drivers spent about 30 per cent of the time with their eyes away from the road ahead. These glances away from the road happened more frequently and for longer periods than when the systems weren’t active.  

Worst Offenders
So while many journalists question the proliferation of gadgets as simply a desire to impress in the showroom, car makers say that the intention is for safer cars and fewer accidents; yet the technology is actually distancing drivers from their purpose behind the wheel.
One magazine put a selection of new cars through their paces, timing how long it took drivers to perform what used to be simple tasks such as adjusting the heater, cancel route guidance on the SatNav, and change the radio channel. The worst performers were Fiat 500X, Skoda Citigo, Peugeot 508, Lexus RX, Honda CR-V while top honours for clarity went to Audi Q3, Porsche Panamera, Mercedes-Benz CLA, and BMW 3-series.

A friend of mine summed it up so well: “We’re not flying to New York here - we’re going to the supermarket. There’s too much technology just for the sake of it. Come on car makers! Quit trying to show off. Keep it simple stupid!”

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