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Dashboard electrics cause distracted driving, too

Published March 22, 2013

Distracted driving is dangerous. On that point there is little disagreement.

But just how much and what type of distraction is tolerable, when driving, is a much tougher question to answer. And it’s one on which there is little if any agreement.

All 10 Canadian provinces and several U.S. states now have some form of cellphone/distracted driving legislation in place, in most cases prohibiting the use of hand-held cellphones while driving.

More: A close call at a stop sign with a distracted driver

More: Is this the most foolish distracted driving stunt of all?

But it’s well-known that hand-held devices aren’t the only forms of driver distraction. And society, automakers and safety agencies alike all seem to be demonstrating some degree of hypocrisy on the issue.

While all acknowledge the dangers inherent in adding distraction to the driving task, they are all complicit, be it actively or passively, in a hysteric rush to make today’s cars and trucks as electronically connected to the outside world as our homes and offices — if not more so.

Last month, General Motors announced that its 2015 models, to be introduced in the 2014 calendar year, will offer embedded 4G LTE mobile broadband technology, making the vehicles themselves Internet hubs and mobile Wi-Fi hot spots.

GM isn’t alone in pursuing such technology. BMW and Audi have announced similar plans and Audi demonstrated an A3 so equipped at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Last year, Chrysler announced plans to offer an embedded wireless service as part of its Uconnect infotainment system in selected 2013 models.

Ford has been at the leading edge of the in-car connectivity movement since introducing its Sync technology in the 2008 model year, and expanding its capability ever since.

It’s all in response to consumer demand, the automakers say. Today’s customers expect to be totally connected 24/7, and if they can’t be in this vehicle then they’ll buy that one, where they can be.

For sure, the car companies are giving some consideration to the safety implications of the technologies they adopt. Many, for example, don’t permit manual inputs to their navigation systems except when the vehicle is parked.

Most, in fact, now incorporate highly-capable voice-recognition, control and response systems for multiple functions from simple phone calls and audio-system tuning to sending or receiving text messages and e-mails.

Thus drivers are able to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. In theory.

But that reliance on voice technology to mitigate or remove the element of driver distraction may be ill-founded.

Almost concurrently with GM’s recent announcement, a group of Toronto researchers released the results of a study that explains some of the dangers in driving while talking on a phone, even if it’s hands-free.

It showed that the part of the brain engaged when carrying out complex driving tasks — left hand turns at intersections in the case of the study — effectively shuts down when the driver is also performing an auditory task, such as talking on a phone.

Led by Tom Schweizer, director of the neuroscience research program at St. Michael’s Hospital, and involving several other Toronto facilities and researchers, the study involved use of a driving simulator within a functional MRI machine at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

Other studies, while less complex in their setup, have shown similar results in the past.

A 2007 MRI study, published by the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, concluded that: “(The task of) language comprehension performed concurrently with driving draws mental resources away from the driving and produces deterioration in driving performance, even when it does not require holding or dialing a phone.

Some may argue that conversing with another passenger in the vehicle could be equally distracting. The counter-argument is that a driver is more likely to ignore another passenger momentarily, as needed, and that a passenger would be attuned to the driving conditions and thus somewhat sensitive to the driver’s immediate task.

It might also be argued that multitasking is a constant fact of modern life. But the Carnegie Mellon report points out that there is a big difference between performing multiple tasks serially and concurrently.

In most cases, what we consider multitasking involves stopping one task to perform another, if only momentarily. In the case of driving and carrying on a conversation, it’s doing two things at the same time.

While the problems of complicating the driver’s task are readily apparent, the solutions are not.

So for now, as always, the onus is on the driver to use whatever technologies are available, or not to use them, in a safe manner.

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