Are normal everyday car drivers better equipped to deal with a constant torrent of information than professional army pilots? Probably not, but drivers are getting bombarded with amounts of information that can rival that of pilots nowadays, which can lead to accidents.
In the late 1980s, the United States Army turned to outside experts to study how pilots of Apache attack helicopters were responding to the deluge of information streaming into the cockpit on digital screens and analog displays. The verdict: not well.
The cognitive overload caused by all that information was degrading performance and raising the risk of crashes, the researchers determined.
Pilots were forced to do too many things at once, with too many bells and whistles demanding their attention. Over the next decade, the Army overhauled its Apache fleet, redesigning cockpits to help operators maintain focus.
Cognitive psychologist David Strayer was among those called in to help the Army with its Apache problem.
Since then, he has watched as civilian cars and trucks have filled up to an even greater extent with the same sorts of digital interfaces that trained pilots with honed reflexes found so overwhelming – touch screens, interactive maps, nested menus, not to mention ubiquitous smartphones.
In his lab at the University of Utah, he's been documenting the deadly consequences.
"We are instrumenting the car in a way that is overloading the driver just like we were overloading the helicopter pilots," said Strayer, director of the university's Center for the Prevention of Distracted Driving.
"Everything we know from pilots being overloaded we can apply to motor vehicles," Strayer said. However, rather than apply it, makers of smartphones and automobiles largely have ignored the research, persistently adding popular but deadly diversions. "They've created a candy store of distraction. And we are killing people."
To be sure, new automotive technology also includes innovative safety features such as lane-departure warning and blind spot detection. Yet, despite these and other crash-prevention systems, the highway death count continues to rise.
After decades of falling fatality rates, U.S. roads have become markedly more dangerous in recent years. In 2021, motor vehicle crashes killed nearly 43,000 people. That's up from about 33,000 in 2012, and a 16-year high.
Theories cover a wide range but no one in the safety field doubts that distracted driving is a main ingredient.
Reported fatalities due to distracted driving have remained flat for the last 10 years, 3,000 to 4,000 a year. But there is good reason to consider those figures a major undercount, as they rely on people admitting they were distracted, or a police officer or someone else witnessing a driver with a phone in hand before a crash.
"It's against people's self-interest to say, 'I was on the cellphone' or 'I was using the infotainment system,'" after a crash, "because there can be serious consequences," said Cathy Chase, who heads Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety.
"I don't think we're getting an accurate picture of what's happening on the roads," she said.
Other measures point to a much higher toll. In early 2020, the National Safety Council said cellphones were involved in more than a quarter of crashes. A poll by Nationwide Insurance shows its agents believe 50% of all crashes involved distracted driving. And safety experts say the problem has only grown worse since the start of the pandemic.
State Farm in April released survey statistics that showed more than half of respondents said they "always" or "often" read or send text messages while driving, 43% said they watched cellphone videos always or often while driving, and more than a third said they always or often drove while engaged in a video chat.
How do the companies behind all those distracting screens and apps – the automakers and smartphone manufacturers – view their responsibility for the problem and their role in solving it?
It's hard to say. The Times asked the five top-selling carmakers in the U.S. – General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Stellantis and Honda – to provide an executive to speak about what they're doing to help prevent distracted driving. All declined, offering instead to make written public relations material available. Apple and Samsung, the two leading smartphone makers, also declined interview requests.
When companies do talk about distracted driving, they tend to frame it as a problem with cell phones. Their solution: Integrate the same functionality and more into dashboard interfaces and voice-recognition systems.
Apple executive Emily Schubert, in a flashy video internet presentation in June, announced major new features for the company's CarPlay infotainment system. Apple declined to make Schubert or any other executive available for an interview, but in an email a spokesperson called CarPlay "the smarter, safer way to use iPhone in the car." What makes it safer, and to what degree? No details were provided.
The company did note it provides Driving Focus mode on its phones, which, if engaged by the customer, keeps the phone silent and doesn't allow notifications to come through. A Nationwide Insurance poll showed 70% of respondents had never used such a feature.
A Honda spokesperson said by email that "the biggest thing we can do to reduce distraction is to reduce the likelihood of a driver looking at their mobile phone while driving" by putting more focus on infotainment systems, through which the company is making "an attempt to minimize distraction while satisfying the driver's ease of use and access to desired information."
Honda offered few details and declined an interview about the subject. The company did say it's working with researchers at Ohio State University on the infotainment interface. The professors involved declined to offer details as well, saying their work for Honda is proprietary.
One problem with relying on infotainment systems to improve safety is that they don't work very well. "Infotainment systems remain the most problematic area" for new car customers, auto market research firm J.D. Power wrote in its latest new-car quality report. Customers complain about frequent problems with connectivity, Bluetooth syncing, touch screens and built-in voice recognition.
The ability to control features such as air conditioning and music playlists via voice commands theoretically improves safety by letting drivers keep their eyes on the road. But with the technology still a work in progress, scientists are learning it can be just as dangerous as fiddling with a smartphone.
In a 2019 paper, Strayer's team reported that completing tasks using voice commands took much longer than other kinds of interaction with smartphones and infotainment systems.
In Europe, automakers will soon be required to install monitors to detect driver distraction in order to receive top safety scores. No such move is being publicly contemplated in the U.S.
Without major changes in driver behavior and public policy, uncounted tens of thousands of people will die each year, with devastating results on their families and their friends. That's part of the cost of the infotainment culture.