Touchscreens more distracting than driving drunk

Transport Research Laboratory makes shocking claim and says voice control that can recognise natural speech is the key to safer in-car technology...

TRL in-car tech

Operating a touchscreen infotainment system while driving is far more distracting than using a handheld phone, or driving drunk or under the influence of drugs, according to the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL).

While carrying out research for IAM RoadSmart, TRL found that drivers using touchscreen-based systems took up to 57% longer to respond to an incident than those who were concentrating on the road ahead.

More drivers ignoring mobile phone laws

That’s worse than the response time for drivers who were talking on a handheld mobile (they took 46% longer to respond), and those who were texting (35%). Meanwhile, a driver who had used drugs would take 21% longer to react to a dangerous situation, and one who was over the alcohol limit around 12% longer.

“Driver distraction is the cause of between 10% and 30% of road accidents, according to official European statistics," said Neale Kinnear, TRL's head of behavioural science. "But the real number is much higher; studies of rear-end accidents in the USA have revealed that some form of distraction before a crash was a contributory factor in 93% of incidents.

“Taking your eyes off the road for two seconds can double the risk of having a crash, yet a driver can spend up to 20 seconds looking at a touchscreen to perform a simple task,” added Kinnear.  

distracted driving

The findings have prompted TRL to call for improved safety standards for touchscreens, and for an increase in the use of in-car voice control systems that understand natural speech. 

The organisation would like to see an infotainment testing regime introduced so that systems can be assessed before the models they're fitted to go on sale to demonstrate that they are safe.  

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Best and worst car infotainment systems

The huge level of distraction caused by touchscreen infotainment systems was also highlighted in a recent investigation by What Car?, where we found that it took a driver up to eight times longer to perform simple tasks, such as changing a radio station or zooming out on a sat-nav screen, when using a touchscreen system instead of physical buttons or voice control. 

Here we rank the 20 cars we tested, from worst to best:

20. MG ZS EV with 8.0in touchscreen

Score 12/30

Infotainment test MG ZS

While the ZS finishes last, it’s not all bad news, with the air-con dials (for temperature and fan) being large and easy to operate.

Touching the screen easily gets you onto the sat-nav map page. However, three steps are needed to end guidance and the map isn’t accurate when you try to zoom out with your fingers. To make matters worse, the system is painfully slow to respond and crashes frequently, so you find yourself looking back at the screen repeatedly to make sure it has done what you’ve asked it to do.

Because the radio stations are in ensembles, you have to scroll to the correct group first and then search for your chosen station, although life is much easier once you’ve saved your favourites. 

The ZS doesn’t have a voice recognition system, but you can activate a smartphone system via a steering wheel button. 

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19. Fiat 500X with 7.0in touchscreen and Uconnect Live

Score 14/30

Infotainment test Fiat 500X

The 500X’s temperature and fan dials are big and simple, although it’s quite a stretch to reach them.  

The touchscreen is also positioned quite a long way from the driver and the icons on it are small, so they’re not easy to read. And while you get an arrow icon that makes zooming fairly simple, the process is slow and you have to go through three steps to stop guidance. Nor is it obvious which button to press first. The radio stations are in alphabetical order, but the slow screen response makes it time-consuming to scroll through them.

It takes five steps to get voice control to navigate to the nearest service station and you need to say exactly the right command each time and confirm every instruction by saying ‘yes’. We were only offered one petrol station, whereas others systems showed as many as 60.

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