20 November 2020


A new TRL study is shedding new light on the distractions caused by in-car touchscreens - we look at the results and ask how fleets can ensure drivers use increasingly complex infotainment systems safely.

Most new cars now have touchscreens in them of one type or another, and the real estate on a dashboard given over to screens is increasing in area as they replace buttons and dials. Using systems designed by the manufacturer, or ‘plug and play’ technology from the likes of tech giants Apple and Android, your drivers’ cars can now access a multitude of functions and updates previously unheard of in cars.

While this technology has many benefits in terms of connectivity and information, there are concerns that they are having an effect on safety. If so, what can you do to ensure your fleet is using them as safely as possible?

The effect of touchscreens

During a study undertaken by the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) on behalf of IAM RoadSmart, the FIA and the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund, drivers were asked to complete a series of drives on a simulated test route to assess the level of impact of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

On the first run, drivers did not interact with the system. On subsequent runs, drivers interacted with the system using voice control only and then finally using touch control only.

There were four main measures of driving performance collected: reaction time to the red bar, driver behaviour measures such as speed, lane position and headway, eye gaze behaviour and self-reported performance.

Both methods of touchscreen control were found to significantly distract drivers. However, touchscreen control proved the more distracting of the two, with using either system causing drivers to take their eyes off the road for significant periods.

The study also found that drivers took their eyes off the road for as long as 16 seconds, which at 70mph would be equate to half-a-kilometre of driving, and using touch control resulted in reaction times that were even worse than texting while driving.

It seems drivers recognised that using touchscreens was causing them to be distracted, because many changed their driving style by slowing down, for example, but TRL reported that it still resulted in them struggling to maintain a constant distance to the vehicle in front, reacting more slowly to sudden occurrences and deviating from of their lane.

Compared with the test drives without any touchscreen usage, when playing music through Spotify using the touch feature on Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for example, reaction times showed an increase of 57% and 53% respectively, which is worse than the impairment associated with conducting a hand-held call while driving (45.9%). 

Part of the issue is design of the systems, and it’s not just on entertainment and connectivity apps. A test carried out by What Car? of 20 infotainment and air-con systems, in which drivers were asked to perform a variety of simple tasks, found that in some instances it took twice as long to adjust heating with touchscreen controls rather than physical dials, and up to four times longer to zoom out of the sat-nav map to view a pre-programmed route using a touchscreen than it did using a rotary dial controller.

Is it just touchscreens which are the problem?

In short, no. As cars and van infotainment systems become more complex technologically using, this is not a new occurrence. In TRL’s report, it cited a 2015 review for the European Commission that estimated that driver distraction, in all its forms, is likely to be a factor in up to 30% of all road collisions in Europe each year (TRL, TNO & RappTrans, 2015), and multiple studies which have proven in-vehicle distractions when driving through the use of hand-held and hands-free mobile phone use, text messaging and social media.

Will voice control help?

The first mass application of voice control in the modern era was the 2001 BMW 7 Series that debuted iDrive.

Since then voice control has been used in cars and vans, through proprietary systems and through the use of those in smartphones, such as Siri.

It is not the panacea for safer driving though. In TRL’s test, the effect of using voice control for features was similar to that found with texting (34.7%) and conducting a hands free call (26.5%). 

For both touch and voice control with both systems, reaction times were greater than established benchmarks of the effect of alcohol consumption (at the legal limit) and cannabis use on reaction time when driving. 

What can you do about driver distraction?

Neil Greig, IAM RoadSmart’s Director of Policy and Research, said: “Driving is a complex activity that requires concentration. Anyone behind the wheel should have their full attention on the road and other road users so they can observe, plan ahead and anticipate what action is needed to get to their destination safely. 

Being connected to family, friends and work colleagues is important, but nothing should be more important than keeping your full attention on the task of driving.”

Dr Neale Kinnear, head of behavioural science at TRL, added: “The results of this study clearly show that touch-control infotainment systems are highly distracting to drivers, far more so than voice-activated systems.

“However, even current voice control systems increase drivers’ reaction times and remains a concern for road safety.

“This is why TRL is recommending that we put our efforts into developing a framework for testing and improving the human factors of such systems.

“This includes improving voice activation as a method of control, as this has the opportunity to greatly reduce the workload on a driver thanks to innovations being made in conversational artificial intelligence (AI).

“TRL would like to see safety standards improved around infotainment systems, not just by their definition, but also through the harmonisation of standards across the entire transport sector.”

Also, when choosing the company cars and vans, check out tests such as the one What Car? produced here, which shows the best and easiest-to-use systems, and ensure drivers follows these guidelines:

  • Prepare yourself and the car’s infotainment system before starting your journey - plugging phones in and making sure they work.
  • Ensure you set up music and podcast choices on the apps you use before starting.
  • Switch off notifications for messaging apps such as WhatsApp, email and text message.
  • Enter destinations on the sat nav before your journey and don’t rely on phone signals and 4g to find your destination while on the move. A system such as CarPlay can easily store multiple locations. Also, make sure that voice guidance is switched on.
  • Set vehicle controls such climate control, suspension/drive settings before beginning journeys.
  • Where possible, don’t make and receive calls on your hands-free phone.


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