Drive for distraction! Touch screens have all the rage but high-tech cars can be difficult to focus on

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Ministers have announced stringent new rules on smartphone use in cars because they are concerned about potential fatal confusion for motorists. Yet security experts point out that smartphones are just getting started.

In fact, the growing trend toward in-car touch screens and digital dashboards means that many confusions have already been built into cars.

When legislation forbidding the use of mobile phones on cars came into force in 2003, the use of handheld was stopped, but hands-free access was allowed.

Fears: The new repression against drivers’ confusion over phones comes as car companies replace traditional dashboards with touch screens and promote it as a major selling point.

This is despite studies showing that engaging in conversation, losing concentration and ‘zoning out’ is a major risk, rather than the physical act of holding the phone. So why only handheld use should be prosecuted? This is because if the phone is caught, it is easy to be prosecuted legally.

The law was tightened, and penalties rose from three points of starting £ 30 to £ 60 (then £ 100) and finally six penalty points of £ 200.

Currently, drivers are prohibited from texting or making a phone call on a handheld device, except in emergency situations.

And this month, the government announced that it would be extended from next year, to play on phones while scrolling through playlists, taking photos and videos.

Driving in the face of traffic is counted as driving, and the highway code is also revised to make it clear that using a handheld phone in traffic lights or motorway jams is illegal except in limited circumstances.

Drivers can still use the devices for satellite navigation if secured in the cradle.

But as a catch-all condition, motorists must take responsibility for their driving and may be prosecuted if the police do not properly control their vehicle.

Distraction: When legislation forbidding the use of mobile phones in cars came into force in 2003, the use of handheld was stopped, but hands-free access was allowed

Distraction: When legislation forbidding the use of mobile phones in cars came into force in 2003, the use of handheld was stopped, but hands-free access was allowed

Getting ready

Ironically, repression of drivers comes as car companies replace traditional dashboards with touch screens and promote it as a major selling point. Cars are now designed to focus on smartphones – with apps to help drivers control functions from their phones. But they are safe, carmakers insist.

Known for its focus on safety, some Volvo models like the XC90 SUV and XC40 have a central smart screen. As a driver, scroll through everything from Satnav to Aircon.

Mercedes-Benz’s new EQS Electric Flagship marks the debut of the MBUX Hyperscreen, which also shy of Starship Enterprise’s control panels.

It merges multiple displays, creating a cinematic-style, 141cm-wide curved screen band. The eighth-generation Volkswagen Golf has a highly criticized screen slider interface for some functions.

After trying it myself, I can confirm that it is completely invalid. I found the controls fickle and it was impossible to use them on the motorway.

Previously moved

There is a mild backlash against the trend of touch screens, with some mature car companies turning to knobs and switches for some key functions. Ford’s new all-electric Mustang may be trying to take the Mac-E Tesla, but its straightforward smart screen has a large circular dial so you can turn the volume up and down.

Safety experts refer to four categories of driver distraction: visual, auditory, biomechanical (adjusting radio volume) and cognitive (lost in thinking).

Initially, modern cars give drivers a disclaimer of caution when performing certain tasks. Most, I bet, click to say they have agreed to this and continue regardless.

Some of Volvo's models, such as the XC90 SUV and XC40, have a central smart screen.  As a driver, scroll through everything from Satnav to Aircon

Some of Volvo’s models, such as the XC90 SUV and XC40, have a central smart screen. As a driver, scroll through everything from Satnav to Aircon

Says AA President Edmund King: ‘Handheld phone messages may be illegal but there are still many potential confusions. Drivers can easily get distracted by messages inside the car. The problem comes when there is too much to digest and this leads to information overload and mistakes. ‘

Mr King says councils and highway officials should also discharge their share of responsibility. The proliferation of traffic signs means motorists are suffering from ‘information overload’, which is more likely to result in a traffic offense unknowingly.

Motorists are so worried about failing to follow a set of signs that they fall into a foul of an unmarked sign – such as a bus lane. He says councils should conduct ‘clutter audits’ on the roads in their areas and keep a published record of signs they can remove.

Cause and effect

Road safety charity The Royal Society for Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA) says that in 2019, ‘vehicle distraction’ is a contributing factor in 2,563 road traffic accidents – 65 of them fatal.

This highlights a major problem with infotainment systems, ‘which allow the driver to perform many tasks, even if they are appropriate, which can be disrupted.’

Rospa adds: ‘People often don’t know when they have cognitive distractions during a mobile phone conversation. Instead of scanning for hazards, they look longer than usual, which results in tunnel vision.

Space Age: Mercedes-Benz's new EQS Electric Flagship marks the debut of the MBUX HyperScreen

Space Age: Mercedes-Benz’s new EQS Electric Flagship marks the debut of the MBUX HyperScreen

A 2018 safety report from the European Union states: ‘Visual / physical distraction activities such as typing numbers or make-up are associated with an increased accident risk, as the driver must look away from the road for long periods of time, thus impeding the proper expectation of unexpected events.

AA says other car dwellers – from brushing toddlers and screaming children to overly excited friends and unattached dogs – can also be disrupted.

But not all of this is negative. To my mind, one of the best safety devices is a head-up display – a spin-off from the kind of technology used on fighter jets. Critical information such as your speed, current speed limit and satnav turn directions are projected onto your windscreen so you don’t have to take your eyes off the road.

Mr. King likes the ‘Blind-Spot Alert’ feature, which alerts the cyclist to ‘take off’ if the out-of-view car is overtaking you or waiting in the lights.

Some Kia models (Sorento and Electric EV6) and the new Genesis line-up (Kia’s Luxury Korean Sibling), including the G70 Salon, go a step further.

When you are prompted to turn or overtake the dashboard screen through the steering wheel, they show you what’s behind you.

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