Increased connectivity between cars and mobile devices has helped drive the public appetite for new developments, with almost two-thirds (61%) of motorists interested in greater connectivity with their vehicle, according to a survey done for the RAC Foundation.
But the growing array of in-car technology brings with it the risk of drivers becoming distracted, which is also increasing. Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “Whilst technology brings huge benefits, we as an industry need to make sure it does so safely.”
The Department for Transport (DfT) reported in 2013 – the latest data available – that there were 2,995 collisions where distraction in the vehicle was listed as a contributory factor, making up 3% of all accidents. Of these, 84 were fatal, equating to 6% of all fatal accidents.
The concern among road safety professionals is that as vehicle connectivity increases, the likelihood of more in-car distractions also rises, which could see many more collisions as a result.
Dave Nichols, professional engagement officer at road safety charity, BRAKE, said: “Any technology that enables drivers to perform tasks that have nothing to do with driving, is potentially as distracting and dangerous as using a mobile phone whilst at the wheel, which is illegal. Vehicle manufacturers have made great strides in producing safer vehicles that protect both occupants and vulnerable road users, which is why it’s so disappointing that they continue to develop technologies that can distract the driver.”
The charity is calling on the Government to regulate the use of in-vehicle connectivity and implement tougher penalties for distracted drivers.
However, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) has defended the growth in connected-car features. An SMMT spokesman commented: “Manufacturers go to great lengths to ensure infotainment systems prioritise the most important functionality so that interaction is as straightforward and intuitive as possible, as well as encouraging drivers to use technologies in the safest ways.
“The increasing uptake of safety systems such as autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning, as we move towards full autonomy, is also helping to mitigate the effects of driver distraction, and will eventually eliminate this risk.”
Researchers at the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) argue that the impact of distraction on safety depends on the duration of the distraction and how frequently it happens, plus the length of time the driver is exposed to the additional risk.
“What is clear from research is that drivers knowingly engage in activities that they consider distracting,” TRL said in a report for the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM).
“Drivers are aware that certain distracting activities affect their driving, but how accurately they are judging the relationship with collision risk is unknown. It is possible that drivers overestimate their ability to multi-task and their behaviour is being driven by other social and emotional motivations, such as the desire for social interaction.”
True multi-tasking is a myth, claimed the IAM report, The Battle for Attention. “If you do more than one thing at the same time, your performance suffers as you struggle to divide your attention,” it explained.
Taking on another task when driving can mean that a driver is unable to pay sufficient attention to all the activities required for safe driving, says the report.
What’s clear is that the debate regarding the pros and cons of in-car connectivity rumbles on. Should we be constantly plugged in? For many, the vehicle offers an oasis from the constant demand to be connected.