Driven to distraction: Are safety tech features in cars actually making them more dangerous?

Driven to distraction: Are safety tech features in cars actually making them more dangerous?
Driven to distraction: Are safety tech features in cars actually making them more dangerous?

David Beckham recently received a six-month driving ban after being photographed using his mobile phone while driving. Unfortunately, Beckham is not alone in apparently thinking time spent driving can also be used for something else.

But it is not just mobile phones that can distract us while we are driving. Increasingly, vehicles come pre-installed with technology that promises to improve our lives and let us get that little bit more productivity out of our journey – from digital assistants to parking assist systems.

Many such technologies are designed to keep us safe, but could they actually be dangerous – giving us a false impression our attention can be focused elsewhere?

David Beckham leaving Bromley Magistrates Court in south east London where he was disqualified for six months after receiving six points for using his mobile phone while driving his Bentley in London’s West End (Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire)

Cognitive demands

Most drivers seem to support the view that hand-held phone use is risky because it involves the driver potentially taking their hands off the wheel. They also know it is illegal. The problem is that many drivers continue to use phones “hands-free” behind the wheel, because the law allows them to do so providing their hands are on the wheel. This implies it is a safe alternative.

But research clearly shows the driving behaviour and crash risk of a phone-using driver – whether hand-held or hands-free – is similar to, and sometimes worse than, that of a drunk driver. Phone use comes at a significant cost to a driver’s attention, making them far more prone to errors, including failures in visual perception and inability to detect and react to hazards.

The real problem with phone use is the cognitive demands that it places on drivers. If we try to engage in another task at the same time as driving, our performance in both suffers.

Infotainment tech risks

We are continually introducing more technologies to our vehicles. Drivers can now ask Alexa or Google Assistant a question, listen to text messages read by the vehicle and use voice commands to make phone calls. This tech works on the assumption that if you are only using your voice, there are no safety implications.

This is problematic. A wealth of research demonstrates that this kind of “infotainment” technology causes some of the distraction that contributes to driver error.

Driving is complex and fast-paced, requiring the processing of information from multiple inputs, yet often we are made to feel as though it is easy.

But demands on attention when driving vary from minute to minute, meaning any focus allocated elsewhere is a precious resource which may not be available when the driver faces an unexpected event. Listening to music, however, is less of a problem as it isn’t interactive in the same way as other technologies.

Cars cannot yet drive themselves

As failure at the wheel can have devastating consequences, it is unsurprising that technological solutions to mitigate driver error are also becoming more common. It is highly likely that Beckham’s Bentley has ABS, parking-assist, reversing sensors and lane-keeping technology.

Such technology has led to a trend in advertising that encourages the belief that modern cars can pretty much drive themselves.

The European Parliament recently announced that, from 2022, new cars should be fitted with intelligent speed assistance, along with other safety features designed to alert drivers to distraction and drowsiness. But will these technologies increase our safety, or could they end up encouraging further distraction?

Are you in a fit state to drive?

Drivers are not good at respecting speed limits, so it may seem like a good idea to try to take the choice about whether to speed out of their hands. To make something “techno-fixable”, however, you need to reduce complex driving behaviour to dichotomies of “safe” and “dangerous”.

Technology needs to be told which behaviour triggers which response in simple, binary terms as it cannot – yet – handle ifs and buts and context. But the risk is that this could encourage us to believe that 30mph, for example, is inherently safe, even when 20mph, or even less, might have been the safer choice.

Likewise, tech that warns a driver if they are showing signs of drowsiness or intoxication, and parks their car for them if they do not respond correctly, could actually encourage people to think that they can drive when unfit because the car will step in and save them. Technology can be marketed as improving safety, but safety requires understanding – not dichotomies.

We know a driver with their hands obligingly at the “ten and two position” can nonetheless be dangerously distracted. Yet we are continually introducing technologies to our vehicles that are distracting. Sadly, we cannot be sure that manufacturers are motivated by selling safety, as opposed to a version of safety that sells.

At a time when we are no longer seeing year-on-year reductions in the number of people being killed or seriously injured on our roads, something radical needs to be done to get drivers’ focus back on the driving task itself.

Gemma Briggs, a senior lecturer in psychology at The Open University, co-authored this article with Helen Wells, a senior lecturer in criminology, and Leanne Savigar, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychology, both at Keele University. This article was republished from TheConversation.com

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