Your Dashboard Display Is Going to Kill You

A new study by AAA suggests that the in-car chaos created by the console screens and smart phones are fundamentally unsafe.

Carlos Diaz / Flickr Creative Commons

A couple of weeks ago, the AAA Foundation For Traffic Safety released what’s becoming an annual study of car infotainment systems, or, as I like to call it, The “your dashboard display is going to kill you eventually” study. Most of the headlines from the study, conducted with researchers from the University Of Utah, announced that car infotainment systems that work in conjunction with Android Auto or Apple Play are safer than “native” in-dash car tech. This is terrific news, until you dig a little deeper into the results.

This year’s study piggybacked onto last year’s alarming results, adding new cars. Infotainment systems that required “very high” demand from drivers include the BMW 430i xDrive convertible, The Buick Enclave Leather (whose sexy name alone is extremely distracting), and the Nissan Rogue SV. But even the cars that did well in the study, like the Chevy Silverado and Kia Sportage, require a moderate amount of demand. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether or not you can mind-meld Siri into the dash of your Ram 1500 Laramie. Infotainment systems are still not safe.

Against my will, I’ve driven a majority of the new cars on the road today, and when it comes to infotainment systems, I’m still like an 80-year-old trying to program a VCR in 1985. So this round of results caused me to wonder: What exactly is being tested in these studies? I spoke to Bill Horrey, who manages the program for AAA. “A lot of the measurements used in the study are a reflection of the revolving science around cognition and distraction," he said. "They’ve been administered in different laboratories. Used so much that they’ve become standardized."

But when it comes to driving, standard situations can vary quite a bit. Frederick Kunkle, a travel writer for The Washington Post, recently published a useful piece where he describes the distressing circumstances of the AAA road test. Equipped with a button to press, a flashing light, and a buzzer situated on his collarbone, Kunkle had to respond to the stimuli while also repeating a random sequence of numbers.

“On another run,” he writes, “I had to drive, watch for the light, respond to the dang buzzer and perform a separate task on a touch screen mounted to the dashboard. In each case, it soon became clear why we had to sign legal waivers to do the test. It drove me batty. It felt like complete overload.”

And lest you think that the test has been designed specifically to baffle old fuddy-duddy car writers who miss their dashboard 8-Track players, AAA has provided this B-roll video of test results, where drivers are clearly in their 30s or younger. Gaze in horror as the drivers, busy fiddling with a bunch of designed bleeps and bloops, nearly blow through Stop signs, swerve out of lanes, and run over pedestrians in clearly-marked crosswalks. The second half of the video, where drivers are using Apple Car Play or Android Auto to make phone calls and find directions, frightens a little bit less. But I also found myself thinking, as I often do when interacting with the car computer: Don’t we already know where the dry cleaner is?

Car tech adds another layer or three of distraction onto a populace that increasingly seems to consider the act of driving to be the main distraction. Bill Horrey from AAA admitted to me that “there’s a whole lot of other things that people could be doing that weren’t part of the evaluating.” No kidding. A truly accurate test would have had people trying to change the AC temperature from a poorly-calibrated dashboard screen display while simultaneously talking on the phone, drinking a 64-ounce Big Gulp, playing with themselves, eating a sandwich, applying makeup, petting their dog, trying to get their kids to settle down, fishing a phone from the crack in between the seat and the console, and huffing meth out of a balloon. These are all things I’ve seen people doing on the highways in the last six months. I’m amazed that the hospitalization rate from driving isn’t upwards of 70 percent.

Just look at the road fatality numbers in the U.S. They hit their absolute peak in 1972, the height of the “Unsafe At Any Speed” era, topping out at more than 54,000. From there, the numbers declined sputteringly, but they definitely declined, hitting 32,479 in 2011, the lowest number since the 1940s. And then they started to rise again. Between 2014 and 2015, fatalities rose by ten percent. By 2016, they had risen to 37,461.

So what changed between 2011 and 2016? Did the quality of automotive safety systems decline? No. In fact, they improved. Did states raise their speed limits? Only on certain roads in Texas, a place where human life doesn’t matter. Did people suddenly become more drunk? Probably not. The only differentiating factor is technology. People with older cars live on their phones while they drive. People with newer cars integrate their phones with their cars, or use phones while simultaneously playing with complicated tablet displays. We are infotaining ourselves to death.

Solutions to this problem seem obvious but also totally impossible. Cops need to enforce existing distracted-driving laws.  And people need to get off the tech and focus on the road. In the meantime, AAA will continue to study the vast limits of human-driven cars, and people will continue to disappoint, as they always do. Soon enough, but also not soon enough, the computer is going to take over everything so you can play Toon Blast while on the freeway.

“If you look at it as a long-enough time horizon, the role of the driver is going to evolve,” Horrey says. “A lot of this stuff will be blips on the radar, but we have a long way to go before we’re there.”

Neal Pollack is a regular columnist for The Drive and a best-selling author of, most recently, Keep Mars Weird.

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