Are car infotainment screens too distracting?

Could touchscreen technology be to blame for some road accidents?

An overseas investigation has begun which will consider the impact distracting in-car technology such as touchscreens is having on the road toll.

The investigation follows a call for evidence published by the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT).

Ministers are worried that while accident rates were consistently falling until 2010, the last decade has seen a “plateauing of casualty figures” rather than a reduction. One of the issues being investigated is the role that the “increasing sources of potential distraction” presented by “advances in car infotainment systems and mobile phone technology” could be playing in preventing accident rates from falling.

As well as distracting infotainment screens and their potential impact on road safety, the DfT will consider how technology can be proactively used to enforce road traffic law. Possible avenues could include cameras that catch drivers using their mobile phones, while Volvo has said it is considering if it has an “obligation to install technology in cars that changes their drivers’ behaviour.”

Touchscreens have become increasingly prevalent in modern cars, and are often integral to both their electrical and mechanical functionality. Some high-end cars now come with not one but two touchscreens, as well as a separate digital display instead of traditional dashboard dials, while front-seat passengers are sometimes catered for by a fourth screen.

Not all manufacturers agree this is progress, though. Mazda has previously said it was moving away from touchscreens altogether, after a senior engineer, Matthew Valbuena, warned the company’s research showed leaning over to use a touchscreen caused torque to be applied to the steering wheel. Valbuena added: “With a touchscreen you have to be looking at the screen while you’re touching… so for that reason we were comfortable removing the touchscreen functionality.”

The impact mobile phones have on driver behaviour is well-established and proven in Australia, despite penalties of up to four demerit points and a $484 fine.

Announcing the call for evidence, Baroness Vere from the DfT said: “We are exploring how we can better use intelligence to target dangerous behaviours, how technology can assist in enforcing road traffic law now and in the future and also how to better understand the value of enforcement in influencing road user behaviour and the current enforcement capability.”

Hugo Griffiths

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