Distraction by degrees

Last reviewed: October 2011

With smart phones becoming ever more ubiquitous, automakers say that drivers are already doing those types of things behind the wheel. They say their approach, with voice interaction and/or larger screens and buttons, is safer than using a handheld phone.

"When you look at our list of features on a piece of paper, it's easy to say, ‘Those things should not be accessible while you're driving,' " says Alan Hall, a Ford spokesman. "But when you really think about it, with a cell phone sitting in their purse or cup holder, people are already doing it. And the way we deliver this type of information is no different than listening to an AM-radio feed."

Similarly, Adam Denison, a manager at OnStar Communications, defends OnStar's voice-based social-media services. "We only want to have those services that ensure that drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road," he says.

Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), says, "The challenge is always balancing what we know the consumer is going to do and how we can make it safer and allow them to do it while they're driving and still focus on the road."

Indeed, a recent study by the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that of 93 students who regularly use smart-phone Web apps, about 35 percent of them said they did so while driving.

But safety advocates say that meeting consumers in the middle is still a risk. "Technology is moving faster than common sense may dictate," says David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah's Applied Cognition Lab who has studied distracted driving.

Tom Mutchler, Consumer Reports' human-factors engineer, says it's a matter of degrees. "The tiny screens and buttons of cell phones and MP3 players just aren't designed to be used when driving," he says. "Well-designed in-car interfaces are safer, but constant interaction with these systems can take your mind off the road."

David Teater, senior director of the National Safety Council, says, "Our need to be connected is so compelling. Most people can't self-regulate, even when we know we should."

Debate about the cognitive distraction of voice conversations is taking place. Real-world studies by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute have shown that a cell-phone conversation alone doesn't raise crash risks. But Mutchler says that is contested among human-factors experts. A 2001 study conducted by the University of Utah, for example, found that participants who engaged in cell-phone conversations missed twice as many simulated traffic signals as when they were not talking on a phone, and it took them longer to react to the signals they did notice. Moreover, it's not clear yet how the results of either study relate to, say, an ongoing Facebook dialogue.

Driver distraction has been described as an epidemic by LaHood. A 2006 Virginia Tech study found that driver inattention plays a part in 80 percent of all car crashes. And according to the Department of Transportation, there were about 5,500 automotive fatalities and almost a half-million injuries in accidents related to distracted driving in 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available. But experts agree that those numbers are probably vastly underreported because many police departments don't have a uniform way of recording the effect of distraction in accident reports.

"The real issue isn't whether these systems are distracting," says Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "It's whether they make it more distracting than otherwise."

So how do you assess the risk of the new services and apps? "All of the automakers are struggling with this question," Reimer says. "It's a battle between safety and marketing."

Strayer, the University of Utah professor, says that there is a big incentive to put in-car electronics in vehicles to sell cars and that automakers are not taking safety into consideration as much as they should. "You're using your brain and eyes and your hands in a way that competes with driving," he says.