Is Car Technology Leading to More Distracted Driving?

Is Car Technology Leading to More Distracted Driving? Each year, automakers release new vehicle models with the latest and greatest car technology designed for drivers to do tasks safely. However, there is a lot of debate over whether these technologies are necessary and safe. It turns out this dilemma is not new. In fact, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times, the Army commissioned a study in the late 1980s to determine how its Apache helicopter pilots handled having a growing amount of information streaming into the cockpit on digital displays. Much like traffic safety researchers are now discovering in drivers of newer model vehicles, the experts conducting the Army pilot study found that too much technology resulted in cognitive overload and reduced performance that led to car accidents. Is car technology leading to more distracted driving? In a word: Yes.

What Is Distracted Driving?

Distracted driving refers to the act of operating a motor vehicle while:
  • Not having both hands on the steering wheel, which is known as being manually distracted.
  • Not watching the roadway, which is known as being visually distracted.
  • Not focusing on the skills needed for safe driving, which is known as being cognitively distracted.
Common driving distractions include eating or drinking, visiting with passengers, tending to children or pets in the backseat, or even adjusting vehicle controls. One of the most concerning types of distracted driving is texting and driving, as it simultaneously causes an individual to look away from the road, take a hand off the wheel, and focus on reading or replying to a message instead of on safe driving. In fact, in the time it takes someone to read or reply to a text, they have effectively driven the length of a football field with their eyes closed. “Everything we know from pilots being overloaded we can apply to motor vehicles,” said clinical psychologist David Strayer, who was among the researchers called for the Army helicopter project and is currently the director of the University of Utah’s Center for the Prevention of Distracted Driving. But rather than apply it, makers of smartphones and automobiles largely have ignored the research, persistently adding popular but deadly diversions. Instead of applying this knowledge, he said, automakers have “created a candy store of distraction. And we are killing people.”

How Does the Latest and Greatest Vehicle Technology Make Distracted Drivers?

If you are still wondering how vehicle technology results in driver distractions—even technology designed to make drivers SAFER—consider these new auto technologies discussed by Kelley Blue Book.

Advanced Driver Assistance Systems

An array of advanced driver systems often come as a bundled set of safety features in new vehicles. These systems can alert the driver to vehicles in their blind spot, tell a driver if there is a vehicle crossing behind them when they are attempting to back up, warn the driver if they are at risk of colliding with another vehicle, if they have departed their lane, and much more. Unfortunately, these features also come with several bells, whistles, and lit-up displays that can draw the driver’s eyes from watching the roadway and their thoughts from the skills they need to employ to avoid a collision. Further, knowing that the warnings are in place can give a driver a false sense of security that they do not need to pay as close attention to roadway conditions because the car will take care of that for them.

Connected Mobile Apps

More and more, drivers want to be able to control their cars from their phones. Several mobile apps display key maintenance features, such as how much gas the vehicle has left in it, the ability to lock or unlock doors remotely, or how to find the nearest gas station. This is all helpful information for a driver to know. The problem is that the information is delivered to the driver’s smartphone, and to look at it, they have to look at their phone, resulting in the trifecta of driving distractions just as texting would.

Wireless Smartphone Connectivity

It would seem that to remove driving distractions, perhaps one of the best things a driver could do was use the time to charge their phone. Many new cars offer wireless smartphone connectivity and charging, with a built-in charging pad to make this example of multi-tasking happen. However, the charging pad is located near the transmission shifter. While this is a convenient location for it and where plugged-in phone charging would take place, the phone remains in plain view of the driver, who can see and be tempted to read messages as they come in. As previously noted, in doing so, they risk driving the length of a football field on a busy roadway while not looking. Along with smartphone connectivity, many vehicles are providing the means for music from the driver’s playlist to stream over the car’s stereo. This provides infinitely more choices for the type of music the driver wants to listen to when driving. It also provides infinitely more chances that the driver’s mind and eyes will be focused on musical selections on their phone rather than on what is happening around them.

OnStar Emergency Services and Stolen Vehicle Software

Onstar provides software for new vehicles that can assist in locating the vehicle if it is stolen or if the driver needs emergency services. The software even allowed hands-free calling—a safer alternative to using one’s phone while driving. However, the company sunsetted its hands-free calling feature in 2022, stating that it no longer provides the best service. Instead, the company encourages its customers to use Bluetooth pairing to have hands-free calling through their smartphones.

Blind Spot View Mirror

A blind spot is an area around a vehicle that the driver cannot see through their rear or side view mirrors. Instead, they are required to look over their shoulder to see these areas. All vehicles have blind spots; generally, the taller or longer the vehicle is, the larger the blind spot. For example, for most passenger cars, the blind spot is located around the rear sides of the vehicle, but in a commercial truck, the blind spots occur on all four sides of the vehicle. A blind spot view mirror relies on small cameras on the sides of the vehicle that display the traffic situation in adjacent lanes. However, this creates another display, often on the gauge cluster, providing information that may or may not be necessary to the driver but that they have available to look at and become distracted by at any given moment.

Video Rear View Mirror

The video rear-view mirror was created to assist drivers of SUVs or pickups—particularly those hauling trailers—in seeing the traffic behind them. It involves a camera in the rear of the vehicle and the ability for the driver to toggle between the camera view and rear view mirror so that they can simultaneously watch for hazards behind them and their trailer. However, the big question in all this toggling and watching is whether the driver can also keep track of what is in front of them while having so much to watch in their mirror.

Are Not Autonomous Vehicles Supposed to Prevent All Types of Accidents?

Many individuals have hailed autonomous vehicles as the mother of all car technology and a way to remove the human error element from traveling down the roadway. This seems at first blush like the only logical way to prevent motor vehicle accidents, as most accidents result from human error. However, the technology is NOT available for a completely autonomous vehicle yet. Several automakers are involved in the race to develop the first fully autonomous vehicle. Currently, several self-driving features are available. The problem with those features is that they give the driver a sense that the vehicle is in control, and they can spend their “driving” time engaging in everything but paying attention to the roadway. According to a study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) of drivers of vehicles using partially self-driving software, including the GM Super Cruise, Tesla Autopilot, and Nissan ProPILOT, over half of those using the GM Super Cruise reported that they felt comfortable treating their systems as self-driving. Over half also admitted to engaging in distracting behaviors while operating their vehicle’s self-driving feature, such as eating, looking at the scenery, and looking away from the road for more than a few seconds. Nearly half use this time to talk on their cell phone, talk to passengers, or have their hands off the wheel for a few seconds. Three percent of GM Super Cruise drivers use the self-driving feature to watch videos on their phones, compared to 5 percent of Nissan ProPILOT drivers and 20 percent of Tesla Autopilot drivers. Ten percent of Tesla Autopilot drivers also report sleeping while their vehicle is in self-driving mode, along with 3 percent of Nissan ProPILOT drivers and 2 percent of GM Super Cruise drivers. Most of the drivers who participated in the study admitted to receiving warnings from the system to pay more attention to the road or to place both hands on the steering wheel. Most drivers also reported that they had experienced unexpected behavior by the system that required them to intervene. Tesla Autopilot users experienced this situation far more frequently than drivers of the other vehicle types.

If It Is Technology-Related, Drivers Will Use It

According to a recent survey from State Farm, drivers are regularly engaging in technology, both the type offered on their phones and the type provided in their vehicles. Consider these statistics revealed in their survey of more than 800 consumers:
  • More than half of all drivers say they always or often send and receive texts while driving.
  • Nearly half of drivers say they interact with apps while behind the wheel.
  • Two-thirds of drivers admit to watching videos or manually dialing phone numbers while driving.
  • A third of drivers report that they have used video chat or recorded a video while driving.
  • Thirteen percent of drivers surveyed said they had used a cell phone in a construction zone.

Some Types of Technology Should Reduce Driver Distractions

While technology does, in most cases, increase the number of driver distractions, certain types of vehicle tech are designed to reduce driver distractions. This includes plug-in devices that let the driver’s mobile phone service provider know they are driving. The wireless provider then blocks incoming calls, emails, texts, and social media updates and prevents the driver from sending messages or social media updates until they are no longer driving. When someone attempts to text the driver, they will receive a notification that the recipient is driving. Technology can protect teen drivers from distractions, including apps that can connect the teen’s phone with the device’s GPS system. When the vehicle reaches a pre-set speed, it will automatically shut off the ability of the device to receive incoming messages or calls until the setting is turned off manually or remotely by the teen’s parent.

The Key Takeaway: It Is On You to Use Technology Safer

For their report, the Los Angeles Times reached out to five top-selling car makers in the U.S., including GM, Ford, Toyota, Stellantis, and Honda, as well as the two leading smartphone makers, Samsung and Apple, to see how they prevent distracted driving. All declined the interview, though some offered to make written public relations material available. Their solution, thus far, is to integrate more smartphone technology into the car’s system, complete with more dashboard interfaces for people to look at, more alerts and warnings to draw their attention, and more focus on infotainment systems designed to somehow make it safer to drive while distracted. If you were injured in an accident caused by a distracted driver, contact a personal injury attorney to learn more about the process of seeking compensation for your injury’s financial and psychological costs.