Why driver distraction is a growing problem for all car owners

driver distraction
Programming the sat nav or changing ventilation settings could be dangerous (Picture iStock/Spukkato)

If you’re behind the wheel of a newish motor, driver distraction might be diverting your attention away from the business of driving.

Anything that potentially interferes in the driver’s relationship with the road can be hazardous. Latest Department for Transport figures for the UK show annually, driver distraction causes 3500 casualties.

These always used to be non-car related factors. They might have included advertising billboards, confusing road signs, children arguing in the back or map reading. But now experts believe cars are just as likely to be the cause of driver distraction. And top of the list of offenders are their sometimes confusing in-car infotainment systems.

How do cars distract you?

These days, touchscreens control an increasing number of our cars’ functions. Some cars have completely done away with the traditional buttons and knobs on the dashboard. In addition to programming the sat nav, the screen also controls the sound system, adjusting the volume, and the ventilation.

driver distraction
All the features offered by the modern car can be distracting for drivers (Picture iStock/Piyaset)

How do cars cause driver distraction?

Think tank the TRL believes the more ways that something engages a driver, the more brainpower it demands. And that means there’s less head space for the task of driving. It adds: “The impact of paying attention to something else while driving also depends on the duration of the distraction and how frequently it happens (i.e. the length of time for which the driver is exposed to the distractor).”

Studies from the US suggest any task forcing the individual to glance away from the road for two seconds or more, or 12 seconds in total should not be allowed.

Are some cars worse than others?

A recent study by What Car? had researchers conducting six basic tasks on 20 cars. These included turning up the cockpit temperature by 2 degrees, programming the sav nav, switching the radio station from Virgin Radio to BBC Radio 4 and using the steering wheel voice control to find the nearest service station. They then scored the cars out of five for each task (so a score of 30 for the best).

Worst was the MG ZS EV with its 8-inch touchscreen which scored 12. The Fiat 500X followed on 14. The Skoda Citigo, Peugeot 508SW and Lexus RX were also among the poorest performers. Best, with a score of 29 was the BMW 3 Series with Live Cockpit Professional.

What’s the answer?

Experts at thinktank the TRL believe there needs to be more research into driver distraction. It says: “We should aim for ‘attention testing’ akin to ‘emissions testing’ for personal, vehicle and roadside technologies. As with Euro NCAP standards for vehicle design, this would encourage the development of safer systems and improved HMI (Human Machine Interface).

“If you have a new technology you want to place somewhere in the road transport system, you will need to get it checked against what it does to the inside of drivers’ heads, not the fact that it can be used hands-free or set below a given level of luminance.”

In addition, legislators are currently working to create regulations around driver drowsiness and attention warning systems. These alert drivers when they’re too drowsy to continue driving safely or when something has diverted their attention. Research across Europe shows that driver fatigue can be a factor in around a fifth (20 per cent) of road crashes.

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