Driven to Distraction

High-tech options in cars look good but can take our eyes off the road. Here’s a list of what’s hands free and what’s hands off. 

Technology is nearly omnipresent in our world today. This is all especially true when it comes to our cars, as they have become virtual offices and command centers that also happen to act as personal transportation.

Much of the technology in cars, of course, has to do with connectivity—hooking up apps from our smartphones, with hands-free Bluetooth, and voice commands for navigation, radio channels, finding restaurants and more. Not to mention entertainment systems so rear-seat passengers (read: kids) can engage with movies or video games and cease with the “when are we going to be there?” questions. And then there’s all the stuff for comfort: heated and cooled seats, seats that contour to our bodies and massage our tired muscles, lights that intuitively come on at night as we approach, keyless entry, lift gates in the back that open with a wave of a foot.

But a ton of the new tech is aimed directly at safety: pre-collision braking, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alerts, lane departure alerts, 360-degree cameras and radar that assist dynamic cruise control, just to name a few.

Is all this high technology really making cars safer? While I like some of the safety and security features, I feel technology makes cars less safe because it’s such a distraction that people pay more attention to their technology options than on the job at hand: driving.

I read a report recently that traffic deaths in the U.S. topped 40,000 for the first time in 2016, following a gradual increase each year for the preceding three years. The reasons are varied—e.g. more cars, more miles driven each year, lower gas prices—but one of the most significant factors cited is driver distraction. In spite of laws and numerous admonitions against texting a while driving and hand-held phone calling in cars, there is so much activity going on in cars these days: texts, tweets, routes, entertainment, a million buttons and touch screens to push and swipe. It’s no wonder that keeping one’s hands on the wheel and eyes on the road is an afterthought.

And while every car and SUV, even the most inexpensive, are equipped these days with a dizzying array of high-tech features, it’s the most expensive cars that I personally find the most distracting. It’s as if paying for luxury or near-luxury in high-end vehicles means larger LCD screens, more options, a computer-like mouse for scrolling access to all of the gear—all distractions that every year compete for attention from drivers. Oddly enough, I was researching technology options touted on car manufacturer web sites in their sales pitches, and every one pictured the front passenger messing with all of the devices; I would hazard a guess that most drivers are in reality alone behind the wheel more than 90 percent of the time.

How to navigate through the tech forest? Here’s my road-tested take on the latest options, good and bad.

Cameras: I like back-up cameras to assist me in reversing, although I don’t often understand all of the overlaid, curving red and yellow lines they add on. But many cars, especially high-end ones have four cameras that come on at the oddest times, and I find my eyes watching the screen rather than the road.

Blind-spot monitoring: Helpful, to some extent, but the constant beeping and/or warning lights flashing every time a car approaches from behind in the other lane is flat-out a distraction.

Start/stop technology: Every time you stop at a stop sign or a traffic light, many cars now shut off and then noisily rumble back to life, in an effort to save gasoline. Not so much distracting as annoying.

Voice commands for phones, music, navigation: Being hands-free is supposed to be safer, but I find the system often misunderstands what I want to do‚ calls the wrong person, routes me to Siberia rather than Peoria and is amazingly distracting.

Lane-departure alerts: Some beep incessantly and some jiggle the steering wheel if you change lanes without signaling, and it’s distracting. I was in a Toyota Avalon that notified me with a dashboard alert that I should stop and rest after I changed lanes three times without signaling; it didn’t just warn me, it nannied me.

Mouse-like system navigation devices: Called Remote Touch on Lexus, these toggle/mouse switches for gaining access to the car’s (many) features should be outlawed; they jump around quickly and require eyeballs for too much time.

On-board Wi-fi: This feature, available on a growing number of cars, even low-level Chevrolets, is obviously distracting. Are you surfing the web or driving?    

I’ve been driving cars for 35 years for press reviews, and I find myself lately proclaiming the virtues of simplicity. I want less connectivity, not more. And, to be honest, I want the guy in the car in front of me, who quite clearly isn’t paying attention to the street or road, to have less access to technology.

After all the attention to the next big thing in technology and safety, isn’t the safest thing possible for a moving car to have an alert and attentive driver?    

It’s driving me nuts.

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