utomakers increasingly are outfitting their vehicles with accouterments so drivers can surf the web, tweet or update their Facebook status. But using them while driving is just as dangerous as trying to balance your checkbook behind the wheel, says a study released Thursday.
A driver of a car moving at 25 mph could spend 40 seconds, or about the time it takes to drive the length of three football fields, to program the car’s navigation system, according to the research commissioned by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety.
The study also found drivers remain distracted up to 27 seconds after sending an email or text.
“What we found is that you’re not cognitively focused on driving, but the distraction,” said Beth Mosher, spokeswoman for the American Automobile Association in Chicago.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group representing automakers, said it had concerns with the research methods, noting the results were not tied to crash results.
Experts say there’s a paradox with the technologies available to today’s motorists. Navigation systems have made driving safer and easier, they say, but they are also distracting and dangerous when used while driving instead of before driving.
The study ranked a pool of 30 vehicles’ “infotainment” systems for low, moderate, high and very high levels of distraction, whether it be visual, cognitive or both. The research included 120 drivers, ranging in age from 21 to 36.
The Audi Q7, listed by Insurance Institute for Highway Safety as one of the safest vehicles on the road, was rated by researchers as having a “very high” level of distraction. The car includes touch-screen and voice-based technologies, among other tools, that are difficult to operate while driving, the study found. Audi did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Despite the potential dangers, consumers are increasingly demanding tools such as text messaging, internet access and voice commands in their autos, experts say. Automakers are for-profit businesses that have responsibilities to their shareholders, said David Teater, an independent car safety consultant. “They are not going to build the safest vehicle in the world that people will not buy,” he said. “If GM offers it (technology) and Ford doesn’t, I’m going to buy the GM.”
Experts say they wish more automakers installed technology in vehicles to allow drivers to disable certain entertainment systems while the vehicle is running.
Teater said he hopes employers will lead the charge for change by requiring employees to pledge not to use their phones and certain other technologies while driving. That, Teater said, will trickle down to consumers.
The 30 cars used in the study were selected for their market share, availability for testing and their “infotainment” features. None of the cars tested was listed in the low-distraction category. In addition to the Audi Q7, cars listed in the very-high distraction category include the Chrysler 300, Honda Civic Touring, Mazda 3 Touring and the Volvo XC60 T5, among others.
The AAA has reached out to automakers and their suppliers to discuss their findings, Mosher said.
“Automakers agree that hands on the wheel and eyes on the road continue to be critical to safe driving,” said Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, in an email. “Portable phones and navigation devices are everywhere, and consumers are using these devices in their vehicles. It’s important to discourage drivers from using portable electronics because they were never designed to be used while driving.”
But Newton compared the infotainment systems to tuning the radio or adjusting climate controls, “which have always been considered baseline acceptable behaviors while driving,” he said.
Personal responsibility is also involved, said Jane Terry, senior director of government affairs at the National Safety Council, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. “We’re not good multitaskers,” she said. ”When you get behind the wheel of a 4,000-pound vehicle, your attention should be on the road. Get your Facebook or directions in before you leave, not in the middle a trip.”