driving to distraction

Car tech and the great distraction dilemma.

does semi-autonomous car tech make us more distracted?

In a new Esurance survey, a whopping 58% of drivers admitted to occasional or frequent distracted driving. That's not a huge shock to anyone who's been on a freeway in the past decade.

What's surprising is that those of us who admit to driving distracted are 36% less likely to be "very concerned" about the issue than those who claim to be "rarely distracted." So, how do we solve a distraction problem when many offenders don't see it as a problem?

Forward-thinking automakers are working toward a solution in the form of semi-autonomous technology. Simply put, semi-autonomous tech describes in-car features designed to do some of the driving for you — let you know when you've drifted out of your lane, warn you about an impending crash, or even brake for you.

But as good as all this sounds, questions remain. Can technology really make us less distracted as drivers? Or will it inadvertently introduce new problems — and distractions?

The answer, in short, is yes.

But before we elaborate, let's take a look at what's distracting us in the first place.

so what exactly is distracting us behind the wheel?

Not surprisingly, phone use still tops the list of driver distractions.

But even though almost all surveyed drivers (91%) believe that texting while driving is distracting, more than half (53%) of daily commuters admit to doing this very thing.

Furthermore, drivers who reported long commutes are 2.5 times more likely to be distracted by their phones, GPS, or music (meaning, the more time we spend in our cars, the greater the chance that sooner or later we'll give in to the lure of some type of distraction, usually tech related).

Texts, emails, and browsing top the list of distractions

List of Top Driving Distractions Infographic
List of Top Driving Distractions Infographic

Actions speak louder than words. Startlingly, those of us who claim to be "rarely distracted" still admit to talking on the phone (59%) while driving. The temptation of the phone, it seems, is just too strong to resist — even among the most disciplined drivers on the road.

Even self-identified “rarely distracted drivers” engage in risky behaviors

Distracted Driving Activities Graph
Distracted Driving Activities Graph

Two things become increasingly clear in the survey results: 1) Most of us recognize that using technology like phones and GPS is distracting behind the wheel, and, 2) We're willing to do it anyway.

So, automakers hoping to address these flawed behaviors — with more technology still — are clearly in for some steep challenges.

semi-autonomous features are taking some responsibility off drivers

Cars, like most everything else in the modern world, are getting techier and techier.

Driver with Car Tech Driver with Car Tech

Features that sounded "Jetson-like" a few years ago are now rolling out of dealerships daily. Things like:

  • Cameras that detect lane markings and use Electric Power Steering to keep your car centered in your lane. (Imagine bumpers keeping a bowling ball out of the gutters).
  • Micro-adjusted steering, acceleration, and braking to keep cars firmly planted on a slippery road.
  • Radar, laser, and camera technologies that monitor speed and braking status and ultimately alert drivers of an impending collision.
  • Cameras and sensors that identify threats beyond what the human eye can see at night.

All of these features, collectively known as "semi-autonomous" technology, are designed to make us safer behind the wheel. But as history has shown, progress often comes with unforeseen drawbacks and dilemmas. As it turns out, many of the advancements designed to make us more attentive drivers could be the very things that wind up distracting us even more (or, at least give us a false sense of security).

technology is making us feel safer but more distracted

Nearly half (46%) of new-ish car drivers with semi-autonomous tech feel the features help enhance their on-road behavior, while 10% believe it hinders their driving.

Tiffany, age 34, is 1 of 15 new owners of high-tech cars interviewed by Esurance. She recalls an instance when she was pregnant and became tired while driving: "When I didn't notice that traffic stopped ahead, the auto brake went on and saved me from a potential accident."

Score one for tech.

On the other hand, some drivers are actually disabling features intended to increase their safety. One out of 4 drivers who sought out tech in their new vehicles have since deactivated at least one feature. And overall, drivers with in-car tech tend to be slightly more distracted than those without it — 29% admit that the warning sounds themselves (when you drift into another lane, for example) can be distracting.

"There are a lot more options and buttons than I've ever had before," says Cynthia, age 54. "I have to scan the dash and use a button to get to the menu, so I can get to the turn knob to find what I need. I try to set up everything before I go."

Drivers with in-car tech are more distracted

Drivers with Car Tech Are More Distracted Graphic
Drivers with Car Tech Are More Distracted Graphic

Tori, age 26, concurs with Cynthia's frustration about her new high-tech mid-sized SUV: "I have to keep messing with the screen to get what I want."

Mess around too long with your attention off the road and your car may even shut off the semi-autonomous features for you. Hand sensors on steering wheels and dash cams that watch a driver's eyes are already being used in new cars, inspiring creative — and dangerous — workarounds. Will safety-minded solutions just abet more bad behavior?

tech could make us safer … if we keep our eyes on the road

Despite their ability to step in and react for us, features like lane-centering and emergency braking ultimately risk giving us a false sense of confidence to look away from the road.

"It's amazing. If you start to veer it lets you know," says Jim, age 44, whose vehicle is equipped with lane-centering technology. He cites the usefulness of assisted-steering if you're driving with food in one hand and say, drop a fry.

Just one careless over-reliance on a feature like obstacle detection — for example, assuming your car will steer around traffic barrels in a construction zone — could end in disaster.

"The idea that consumers might rely too much upon or even abuse these new technologies is a big concern," notes Brandon Schoettle, a project manager at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. "We are at a point where you can take your hands and feet off the controls for the most advanced systems, but not yet to the point where you can turn your brain off."

Even if truly self-driving cars were available now, most drivers aren't ready to give up the wheel. Only 17% of surveyed drivers would sacrifice driving control to safely multi-task on the road. Likewise, only 1 out of 3 drivers believe distracted behaviors should be monitored or restricted by their car. That's a sign that efforts to incentivize attentive driving may not do the trick.

For now, at least, it's as important as ever to keep our brains "on" while driving. Here are a few tips on doing just that:

  • Store your phone in the back seat (or put notifications on silent) so you're not tempted to access while driving
  • Set your destination in your GPS before getting on the road
  • Avoid doing other activities while driving, such as eating or applying makeup
  • Pull over to tend to emergencies or personal distractions (kids, etc.)

Until we admit accountability for our own distractions, we can't rely on in-car technology to squelch distracted driving. Every advancement in car tech requires that we adapt as drivers to safely — and attentively — take advantage of the promising road ahead.

Research Methodology

Esurance conducted an online survey in December 2017 through January 2018 of 1,057 vehicle owners in the U.S. Drivers with car tech refers to owners of vehicles with warning systems (blind spot monitor, lane departure warning, collision warning, etc.) or driver override features (lane keep, automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control). Additionally, fifteen interviews were conducted in December 2017 with owners of high-tech vehicles.

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