By Nick DiUlio
Distracted driving is a dangerous problem. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near crashes involve some sort of distraction. What’s more, 3,179 people were killed in distracted-driving crashes in 2014 (the latest data available).
When it comes to this ubiquitous lack of focus behind the wheel, cell phone use often steals the show. However, texting and chatting aren’t the only sources of dangerous distractions. Some of the most potentially distracting devices are built right into our vehicles as more cars come equipped with everything from MP3 input jacks to glossy touchscreen dashboards that are able to deliver a mind-boggling number of Internet and radio options from around the world.
According to NHTSA, more than 600,000 drivers are regularly fiddling with electronic devices while driving. What’s more, of the nearly 900,000 crashes involving distracted driving reported to police, 26,000 involved adjusting devices or controls in the car, which include radios, CD or MP3 players, GPS systems and even climate controls.
“We don’t often think about it as a significant distraction when we look down to adjust the radio or AC, but when you’re cruising down the highway at 60 mph, that quick glance is a lot of time,” says Tully Lehman, former spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California.
Lehman notes that 60 miles per hour is equivalent to 88 feet per second. Taking your eyes off the road for just three seconds means you’ve traveled 264 feet without seeing what’s in front of you.
“A lot of things can happen on a 264-foot stretch of highway,” says Lehman. “Cell phones get all the attention here, but there’s more to it than that.”
According to a survey conducted by Nationwide Insurance, more than 80 percent of polled drivers identified themselves as multitaskers (meaning they frequently engage in other tasks while behind the wheel). The No. 1 culprit: adjusting the radio or CD player, with 82 percent of respondents saying they frequently engage in this behavior while driving.
“This type of distraction is extremely common and doesn’t get enough attention,” says Dan Weedin, a Seattle-based insurance and risk management consultant. “Some of our most common devices are potentially the most dangerous.”
Government and tech solutions
In order to address this problem, NHTSA recently came out with proposed auto industry guidelines that might make on-board devices less distracting to drivers. The proposed guidelines — which car makers are not legally obligated to follow — require all dashboard functions to be possible with one or more two-second glances away from the road. They also include recommendations to:
- Reduce complexity and task length required by the device.
- Limit device operation to one hand only.
- Limit unnecessary visual information in the driver's field of view.
- Limit the number of manual inputs required for device operation.
Additionally, Carroll Lachnit, features editor for the automotive website Edmunds.com, says auto makers are coming out with increasingly hands-free dashboard control options in order to stem the distractions tide.
“The most popular thing you’ll see these days are hands-free dashboards or steering wheel mounted controls that can cycle through everything from the iPod to the CD player to the Bluetooth,” says Lachnit. “But driver distraction isn’t just about the technology. There’s a psychology aspect to this, as well.”
For instance, let’s say you get in the car, start driving and then suddenly realize your son or daughter has changed all of your preset radio stations. This small detail of circumstance, says Lachnit, only adds to the problem.
“Now. in addition to the physical distraction of looking down at the radio to reset the stations, you’ve got the cognitive distraction of thinking about how angry you are that your son or daughter keeps doing this,” says Lachnit. “The mind is always the wild card, and people need to worry about that as much as they do about the technology.”
New ways of listening
Over the past few years several automakers have unveiled impressive new dashboard audio technologies designed to reduce distraction.
For instance, a few years ago Volvo unveiled a new infotainment dashboard that uses cloud server technology to feed apps and other types of digital content directly into the vehicle. Chrysler, meanwhile, introduced its Uconnect Access Via Mobile in 2013, a cloud-connected streaming audio feature that delivers content from iHeartRadio, Pandora, Slacker and other apps to vehicles that are equipped with the system.
Audi has been another big player in the streaming audio realm with an infotainment system available for its A3 and A3 Sportback vehicles. It’s a first-of-its-kind central computer located in the glove compartment that not only streams various audio apps and digital content directly to the vehicle, but can also be upgraded with up-to-date computer chips and software as the technology improves (similarly to the way we update software on our home computers).
For several years now Toyota has equipped many of its vehicles with Entune, which lets drivers stream Pandora and iHeartRadio as well as perform hands-free tasks like restaurant reservations, traffic and weather updates, and even movie-ticket purchases.
Regardless of these new innovations, cognitive distraction remains a problem for drivers.
A recent study by the AAA Foundation of Traffic Safety looked closely at hands-free infotainment systems in 10 different model cars and found increased mental distraction at potentially unsafe levels. For instance, some drivers remained distracted for as long as 27 seconds while using voice-command dashboard controls.
“On one hand, (automakers) are trying to add technology to vehicles because consumers want it,” says automotive journalist Doug Newcomb. “But they also struggle with the fact that it adds to driver distraction.”
The insurance impact
Not only is distracted driving extremely dangerous to you, your passengers and others on the road, it could also lead to a world of hurt when it comes to your auto policy.
“If you’re involved in an at-fault accident because you were distracted in some way, it’s just like running a stop light or stop sign and hitting someone,” says Weedin, a former auto insurance underwriter. “In the insurance company’s eyes, that’s a high degree of negligence, and your policy is probably not going to be renewed.”
Weedin points out that several studies have concluded that distracted driving — in all forms — is just as dangerous as driving under the influence. He says most insurance companies will look at a distraction-related accident the same way they would had it been caused by a DUI.
“Insurance companies understand the general risks of driving and can live with the occasional accident here and there,” says Weedin. “What they won’t tolerate is when you do something you knew wasn’t right — like talking on your phone or fidgeting with devices behind the wheel — because they figure you’ll probably do it again, because people generally don’t change their habits.”
As for shopping for a new policy afterward, Weedin uses just one word to describe the process: brutal. The negligence that caused the accident will stay on your record for three years, during which time companies are either going to deny you a policy or charge an expensive high-risk (or non-standard market) premium.
“People need to think of distracted driving like they do drunk driving,” Weedin says. “Insurance companies are very anal when it comes to statistics, and they know without a shadow of a doubt that distracted driving is as dangerous as driving under the influence.”