Drivers have too many distractions

CHICAGO TRIBUNE (TNS)

There was a time when a distracted driver was a parent fuming at a couple of kids yipping at each other in the back seat. Today, the internet and social media are all around — including on our dashboards.

Drivers can check Facebook posts, pore over email or chart a course for the nearest French restaurant, all while cruising down the highway. It may be a sign of the times, but it’s nonetheless an outcome of automobile innovation that needs addressing.

A new study commissioned by the American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety warns that the latest models are brimming with bells and whistles that dramatically ramp up the potential for distracted driving. Researchers looked at the infotainment systems inside 30 new car models, assessing driver interaction with calling/dialing, texting, radio tuning and navigation functions. The car models’ rankings were based on their level of visual and/or cognitive distraction: low, moderate, high or very high.

The results: 23 of the models tested had high or very high distraction levels. None of the models had a low level. How bad was the distraction? Programming a car’s navigation technology — inputting an address, for example — took an average of 40 seconds. That’s about the time it takes a car going at 25 mph to drive the length of three football fields. Sending a text or email distracted drivers up to 27 seconds, the study found.

Distracted driving should be discouraged with the same urgency as drunken driving. About 10 percent of the 35,000 traffic deaths in America in 2015 involved a distracted driver, a nearly 9 percent jump from 2014. And distracted driving is a factor in more than half of car trips that end in a crash, according to a study by Cambridge Mobile Telematics, which creates apps for car insurers.

Navigation systems indeed help us get from A to B. Hands-free technology has rendered making phone calls safer while driving. But carmakers can do a lot more to minimize the risk of distracted driving.

Carmakers can install technology that blocks a motorist from sending a text or entering an address into a navigation system while the car’s in motion. Need GPS to help you find that friend’s party? Pull over and do it. Want to check the latest Trump tweet? Pull over and do it. The study’s authors say the goal for carmakers should be to design infotainment systems “that are no more demanding than listening to the radio or an audiobook.”

Congress, of course, could force the industry’s hand with legislation that mandates improvements to minimize driver distraction. We hope it doesn’t come to that. It’s in the bottom-line interests of carmakers to make their cars safer. And these days, one of the best ways to do that is to keep drivers’ attention off Facebook and Twitter — and on the road.