While automakers are making progress in including lifesaving automatic safety devices with their latest vehicles, advances in another kind of technology may be having the opposite effect on auto safety.

According to a new report by Progressive, the increasing availability of hands-free Bluetooth phone calls, head-up display systems and in-vehicle “infotainment systems” in new cars and trucks is creating more opportunities for distracted driving.

“Some of the cars we tested had over 200 multifunction buttons, one or more touchscreens, voice commands, head-up displays,” said David Stayer, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah who conducts distracted driving research for the AAA auto club. “The modern car looks like a jet fighter with all the displays. Some cars even allow you to play games on the screens while you’re driving.”

Strayer was a co-author of the Progressive report, along with Highway Loss Data Institute Senior Vice President Matt Moore and Progressive Development Manager Ashwin Kekre. The article cites the promise of advanced driver-assistance systems such as automatic emergency braking and blind-spot warnings to improve safety, but also warns of the contravening impact of devices that are installed mostly for driver convenience.

Driver safety has been a major concern for insurers. While vehicle traffic and accident rates plummeted during COVID-19 lockdowns in early 2020, drivers returned to roads in 2021 at nearly full force and claims became more severe, according to CCC Intelligent Solutions. The fatal accident rate increased 18.4 percent during the first half of 2021, the largest jump for that time period since 2006, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in October.

The Progressive report, citing NHTSA data, said 8.7 percent of all car crash fatalities are caused by distracted driving. “It’s no wonder that organizations like the AAA are researching how infotainment systems affect drivers,” the article says.

Technology that was intended to reduce distractions doesn’t always work. Strayer said the only safety benefit of hands-free phone calls is that the driver doesn’t have to manually dial the phone. The phone call itself is just as distracting as it would be if it were conducted while holding a cellphone.

“How many people are doing that and going right by their exit?” he said in the article. “If you drove by your exit, what else could you miss? Maybe it’s something that’s really critical, and maybe it isn’t. That’s the problem; you can get away with a lot of this stuff until you can’t.”

Progressive said data from its Snapshot program, which monitors driver behaviors, shows that 99 percent of enrolled drivers used their phone at least once while driving in 2020. Research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that the percentage of drivers observed talking on handheld phones dropped to 2.6 percent in 2020 from 2.9 percent the year before. Progressive said that suggests the vast majority of phone use while driving is done with hands-free devices.

Head-up display systems, which project information such as the speedometer reading and the amount of remaining fuel on a vehicle’s windshield, can also be distracting, the report says. Stayer said collision warning displays are useful, but head-up displays that present text messages are a dangerous distraction.

Flashy infotainment systems can also create distractions. Increasingly, manufacturers are replacing knobs and dials with touchscreen controls that require more movements.

Strayer suggests that consumers disable any overly complicated systems provided by automakers and instead use interfaces they are already familiar with, such as Google Assistant or Apple CarPlay. He said device manufacturers have been working 20 years to develop easy-to-use interfaces.

Progressive said that a different kind of technology also holds out great promise for driver safety. In March 2016, 20 automakers that represent 99 percent of the U.S. auto market reached an agreement brokered by federal regulators and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to make automatic emergency braking a standard feature on virtually all new cars no later than Sept. 1, 2022.

IIHS reported in December that 12 of the 20 automakers are ahead of schedule in meeting that pledge by installing automatic emergency braking on 95 percent of their new vehicles. Two other automakers had installed the devices on at least 90 percent of their new vehicles.

The Highway Loss Data Institute reported in 2020 that forward collision warning combined with automatic braking reduced front-to-rear crashes by 50 percent, and crashes with injuries by 56 percent.

The Progressive article says there is still a long way to go. The voluntary agreement by automakers applies only to new cars. According to HDLI, 11 percent of vehicles on the road in 2020 were equipped with automatic emergency braking, up from 8 percent in 2019.

Progressive is offering discounts for vehicles that are equipped with emergency braking. The insurer said that it could not offer the discount without proving to insurance regulators in every state that the data supports the use of the technology.

“It took us some time to get that discount into our product, but it was certainly something we had been working on ever since HLDI proved with their analysis that this technology was really effective in reducing accidents,” said Kekre, the Progressive product manager.

Topics Auto Tech