The Joy and Pain of Infotainment Systems in Cars

"Infotainment" is a new word coined by car manufacturers. It means the complicated dashboard devices that control music, phone systems, navigation, and, sometimes, Internet searches and social media updates. While they may be a joy to use, they can and often do result in pain inflicted by car crashes. Some of the devices require the use of two hands, resulting in a driver momentarily relinquishing control of the steering wheel, and two or more seconds to operate. Traffic safety studies show that taking the eyes off the road for that long vastly increases the odds of an accident. Talking on a phone does the same because the conversation diverts attention from developing road hazards.

Studies have shown that using cell phones leads to 4 times a greater risk of crashing. Drivers with a blood alcohol level of .08, the equivalent of DUI in most states, have a similar rate of crashes, so increasing the level of sophistication of dashboard technology in infotainment systems is a serious problem. As manufacturers build more functions into the systems, they become more and more distracting to the point that just changing a radio station is dangerous.

Safety advocates have encouraged federal and state highway safety officials to ban cell phone use, including texting. With infotainment systems taking off in new vehicles, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed voluntary guidelines to auto makers to stop equipping new vehicles with systems that can distract attention. NHTSA says it's not interested in eliminating the sale of items like GPS systems, but it does want dashboard systems to be designed to be safer. Safety critics, such as those at the National Safety Council, want more stringent measures taken, like the passage of laws requiring safer design and mandating penalties if the manufacturers refuse. As always, we will see what develops.

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