The growing risk from infotainment distraction

In August 2021, Vince Patton, a retired broadcast journalist in Oregon tested something he’d seen on YouTube. He drove his Tesla Model 3 to an empty car park, activated a game called Sky Force Reloaded on the central screen and drove around.

Techxplore reported that the game worked and so he tried Solitaire. He then discovered he could browse the internet while driving. He said: “I was dumbfounded. Somebody’s going to get killed. It’s absolutely insane.”

Patton filed a complaint with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the US government’s road safety agency. In it, he wrote: “NHTSA needs to prohibit all live video in the front seat and all live interactive web browsing while the car is in motion. Creating a dangerous distraction for the driver is recklessly negligent.”

Box: Distraction stats

  • Every year, distracted drivers account for about 2.5 million car crashes worldwide

  • Every day, more than 1,000 people experience injuries due to distracted driving crashes

  • In 2019, distracted driving was responsible for 9% of fatal motor vehicle accidents

  • After using a mobile phone, the brain needs 13 seconds to refocus

Source: Carsurance 


In light of Patton’s complaint, NHTSA opened a formal safety investigation and accepted that Tesla’s ‘Passenger Play’ might increase the risk of a crash. Towards the end of 2021, the manufacturer announced that a software update would lock this feature when the vehicle was in motion. It is estimated that almost 600,000 vehicles were affected.

‘Don’t be blinded by the benefits’

In-vehicle infotainment is an area all employers need to keep an eye on. The market is predicted to almost double in the next few years (from USD $20.8bn in 2021 to USD $38.4bn by 2027) and the Asia-Pacific region, featuring China, India, South Korea and Japan, is thought to be the largest global market. What’s more, screens are getting substantially bigger – with premium-vehicle producers installing screens as wide as 20 inches.

Some on-screen features are designed to help drivers, with services navigation and traffic updates among the highest in demand. However, as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) notes: “Distraction from these systems arises from a combination of three sources:

  • visual processing (when the driver takes their eyes off the road);

  • manual interference (when the driver takes their hands off the steering wheel); and

  • cognitive (when attention is drawn away from information processing necessary to operate the vehicle safely).

RoSPA’s conclusion is that while using these systems, “drivers may take their eyes off the road for a sustained period of time to look at the screen and select which icons they should touch, devoting significant mental resources to this task, when screens are often well below the driver’s eye-level. Drivers may also become distracted by interacting with the system vocally or manually.”

The importance with all new technology is to understand and address unintended risks they pose and not be blinded by the benefits.

RoSPA also notes that education is key to combating the risks of in-vehicle infotainment. “The importance with all new technology is to understand and address unintended risks they pose and not be blinded by the benefits. If the implementation of in-car technology continues at a rapid pace, proper management of associated risks is essential to safeguarding individuals.”

Employers need to review policies

Echoing this warning, road safety organisation IAM Roadsmart produced research recently that shows that the latest in-vehicle infotainment systems (the organisation tested Android Auto and Apple CarPlay) impair reactions times behind the wheel more than alcohol and cannabis use.

Among its results, the study found that:

  • reaction times at motorway speeds increased average stopping distances to between four and five car lengths; 

  • drivers took their eyes off the road for as long as 16 seconds while driving; and

  • using touch control resulted in reaction times that were worse than texting while driving.

Additionally, IAM Roadmart’s other findings were:

  1. Controlling the vehicle’s position in the lane and keeping a consistent speed and headway to the vehicle in front suffered significantly when interacting with either Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, particularly when using touch control. 

  2. Participants failed to react more often to a stimulus on the road ahead when engaging with either Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. 

  3. Reaction time to a stimulus on the road ahead was higher when selecting music through Spotify when using Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. The impact on reaction time when using touch control was worse than texting while driving (based on previous studies). 

  4. Use of either system via touch control caused drivers to take their eyes off the road for longer than NHTSA recommended guidelines (when using voice control all measures were within NHTSA guidelines.)

  5. Participants underestimated the time they thought they spent looking away from the road when engaging with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay via touch control.

Fleets are at risk so policies need to be updated

Neil Greig, director of policy and research at IAM RoadSmart, issued a warning for fleet managers and those with a responsibility for people who drive for work. He said: “Individuals driving for work are just as at risk as the general public, so we would encourage employers to review their advice and policies in light of this research.”

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