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AAA Study: Vehicle ‘Infotainment’ Systems Distracting Older Motorists



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Newtown resident and traffic safety scientist Dr Neil Chaudhary remembers the day not too long ago when he got his first vehicle with a large, digital “infotainment system” on board.

“My assumption was this thing wouldn’t be in my vehicle if it was going to be a distraction,” he said. “But I found it incredibly dangerous.”

While that may be a common observation, it had particular implications for Dr Chaudhary, who is the distracted driving specialist among his colleagues at Trumbull’s Preusser Research Group (PRG). PRG supplies premier investigators of behavioral traffic safety related issues to clients including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, National Safety Council (NSC), and the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT).

So he was particularly interested when collaborative research between the AAA Foundation and the University of Utah resulted in a new report that found older drivers are distracted more than eight seconds longer than their younger counterparts when they use certain in-car infotainment systems. This latest study is the seventh phase of groundbreaking distracted driving research by AAA and the University of Utah.

While some may automatically assume that disparity is simply a result of those operators being somewhat older, this new AAA research has proven it is because the technology is hard to use and poorly designed — something that Dr Chaudhary concurs with.

“I completely agree with the researchers that vehicle manufacturers need to consider older operators when they design vehicles,” he said. “We’re already there when you consider the proportion of drivers who are older — and that will become much more prevalent in the next few years.”

He said auto makers are providing vehicle technology that is very helpful to older drivers, particularly rear observation cameras that can help those who may be physically compromised when backing their vehicles up in reverse. Blind spot indicators that are common on many vehicles are also a big help, he added.

“Unfortunately, I think the belief is that as you age, you become a worse driver, but many studies have proven that is not the case,” he said. “Certainly, there is a subset of people that at a certain age should no longer be driving. But many older drivers self-regulate, like avoiding driving at night or avoiding making left turns. The only place you see a real difference statistically is with older drivers who travel more miles — but that could be said for all drivers or a select segment of older drivers.”

Stats And Specifics

In the study, the research arm of AAA reports that voice commands for calling, texting, navigating, or tuning radios in one of six infotainment systems caused 55-75-year-old drivers, on average, to divert their eyes from the road longer than 21-to-36-year-old drivers.

It further determined that older adults, who took between five and nine seconds to complete in-car tasks on these infotainment systems, experienced slower response times and more visual distractions, even though these systems created potentially unsafe distractions for all drivers.

The vehicles used in this study included the Volvo XC9, the Audi A6 Premium, the Nissan Pathfinder SI, the Lincoln Navigator, the Mazda CZ-5, and the Cadillac CT6.

“Voice command functions in new cars certainly have the potential to extend the mobility of older drivers,” said Fran Mayko, AAA Northeast spokeswoman. “But poor design, complex systems, and in-car position that make it difficult to easily complete simple tasks are causing more harm than good to older drivers.”

For any driver, no matter the age, taking your eyes off the road for just two seconds doubles your crash risk, she added.

Both AAA and Dr Chaudhary believe it is critical that car manufacturers find ways to design less-demanding systems to improve driver comfort and safety since older drivers are becoming the fastest growing demographic in the US. According to Mayko at AAA, within the next decade, more than one in five drivers on the road will be over 65.

“Complex in-car technology is a design problem, not an age problem,” Ms Mayko pointed out. “Designing systems to meet the safety and comfort needs of aging drivers would benefit all of us.”

Researchers tested the visual and cognitive demand created by infotainment systems in six 2018 vehicles on the two driver age groups when they used voice commands, touch screens, and other interactive technologies to call, text, tune radios, or program navigation, all while driving.

Unanswered Questions

Dr Chaudhary said while this latest study is very comprehensive and helpful to other traffic safety authorities as well as the general motoring public, there are still a couple of questions that remain unanswered.

“They use a similar method in all of the AAA distraction studies, which is measuring reaction time using a secondary task — that measures accuracy to a stimulus. But I haven’t seen anything that really says their method is predictive of crashes,” he said. “It is a measure of cognitive load, but not predictive of crashes. You’re investing more brain power in a primary task, and it probably means less focus on the road, but I would love to see something done with a simulator that shows an increase in crashes correlated to that increased reaction time. I think that’s a missing piece.”

Dr Chaudhary also noted some of the secondary tasks that research subjects are being asked to do are inconsistent with anything a driver would be required to do, like calculating more complex math problems.

“Are the researchers creating an environment that is realistic to what we experience when actually driving?”

The Newtown traffic expert said PRG has just completed gathering data in Louisiana, Arizona, Nevada, and in Virginia that will analyze how frequently “people reach for the dashboard or interact with the vehicle infotainment system,” he said.

“So far, we’re not seeing any difference across ages — everybody seems to be interacting with the technology at about the same rate,” he said. “But we’re also seeing it’s a relatively infrequent activity. Only between one-half of one percent and one percent of drivers are interacting with the onboard systems at any given time. It’s not like driving holding a cell phone, where there is much more frequency with the interaction, although that group is relatively small as well.”

Dr Chaudhary sees the kinds of studies from AAA and organizations like PRG as prompting vehicle designers and manufacturers to make accommodations in their infotainment systems for drivers sooner than later. But he believes the real evidence will come from studies that actually tie the use of these systems to crash risk, versus simply gauging the potential of increased cognitive load.

“I always wonder if these devices actually increase crashes,” Dr Chaudhary said, adding that several colleges and universities, including UConn, have simulators in which those studies could be done, “but it’s always a question of the cost to do these types of studies.”

Visit aaa.com/distraction for information on the full study and the previous research.

As vehicle ‘infotainment’ systems have grown more complex, so have the challenges of keeping drivers — particularly older drivers — from being distracted by them, according to a new AAA Research Foundation study. —photo courtesy AAA
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