Touchscreens are not the worst distraction in cars, study reveals. So, what is the most distracting factor?
A new Norwegian study shows that there are entirely different things that capture our attention behind the wheel.
In new electric cars, it is not just a matter of pressing a button or turning a handle if you want to turn the seat heater on.
To turn the heat on in digital electric cars, you have to press a touchscreen – several times. This makes you inattentive.
According to the Norwegian Public Roads Administration, a significant proportion of the accidents in 2023 were due to the driver being distracted, including by the integrated screen in the car.
“New and modern cars inherently have higher built-in safety than older cars, but they also have more digital systems. Some of the functions that have been moved to a touchscreen mean that you take your eyes off the road. And that’s not desirable,” Guro Ranes at the Norwegian Public Roads Administration tells Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK (link in Norwegian).
But is it really the touchscreen that causes the most inattention?
Observed drivers on E18
Researchers at the Institute of Transport Economics (TØI) have recently looked into this.
They asked the drivers themselves, analysed fatal accidents, and even spied on people in traffic. The latter is called behavioural observations, which were conducted along a stretch of the European Route E18 with a speed limit of 100 kilometres per hour. The researchers drove in an observation car in the right lane, slightly slower than the speed limit, and observed cars passing in the left lane.
Their conclusions are that there are other things than the touchscreens of electric cars that distract drivers.
Just as inattentive now
When the Norwegian Public Roads Administration started a campaign on inattention in traffic in 2018, they also asked researchers from TØI to look at its effect.
Would the campaign make Norwegian drivers more attentive? Or at least aware of their own inattention?
The report shows that we are just as inattentive in traffic now as we were five years ago. We are neither more nor less distracted.
“It’s striking how similar the numbers were in the studies we did in 2018 and 2022. This means that inattention has been almost stable over this period,” Ole Aasvik, one of the researchers behind the new report, tells sciencenorway.no.
The problem may increase
“Our conclusion is that technology in cars can be both harmful and beneficial. There is therefore reason to be aware of the problem, but not to claim that touchscreens in cars significantly contribute to fatal accidents in Norway,” Aasvik says.
He explains that approximately every third fatal accident in Norway is due to inattention.
“This is an issue that could worsen in the future, as more technology might lead to more passive drivers,” he says.
What other things distract us?
Research shows that the touchscreen is not the primary distraction in a car.
“Of course, it happens, but it’s not the most dangerous or frequent factor,” Aasvik says.
“This might be because people adjust their behaviour to the traffic conditions, such as delaying adjusting the cabin temperature until they are not in a demanding traffic situation,” he explains.
Instead, mobile phone use, other passengers, and what’s termed cognitive inattention are more significant distractions.
Cognitive inattention is a technical term that essentially refers to daydreaming or simply thinking about other things.
“For example, you can ‘wake up’ after having driven a distance,” he says.
Without really remembering that you have driven there.
How honest are people about their driving?
As mentioned, Aasvik and his colleagues conducted several different types of studies.
They sent out questionnaires to random people with driving licenses asking about attitudes, norms, knowledge, and strategies to avoid inattention in traffic.
But in many cases, so-called self-reporting will not be entirely accurate because it is based on people's memory and honesty.
Therefore, they also conducted behavioural observations, where they observed drivers on the road. This allowed them to identify physical, visible distractions and correlate these with the responses from the survey. They also carried out roadside surveys, where they stood at the same roadside diner and interviewed people who stopped to get a bite to eat, to charge or refuel their car.
Additionally, they used analyses of fatal accidents in 2018 and 2022.
Drivers believe they are more attentive
It turned out that about 14 per cent of drivers were engaged in so-called secondary activity while driving, meaning they were distracted by other things than the driving itself. This was the same both in 2018 and 2022.
From the survey, it emerged that attitudes towards inattention had improved slightly, and the researchers saw a slight decline in self-reported inattention. This means that drivers themselves feel that they have become a bit more attentive in traffic.
However, the observations and analyses of fatal accidents suggest a small increase in inattention.
The researchers note that it's difficult to draw firm conclusions, but the changes between 2018 and 2022 are relatively minor.
“Even though screens and control systems in cars do not contribute to reducing road safety and driver attentiveness in Norway, inattention in general remains a significant contributing factor in fatal accidents,” the researchers write in a press release (link in Norwegian).
Texting and using mobile phones while driving
There has been much research on the use of mobile phones in cars. A study from 2016 shows that typing or texting on a phone is associated with an extremely high risk of accidents.
However, not many accidents happen because of this, as typing and texting occur relatively rarely. There are many other distractions that occur more often.
This applies, for example, talking with passengers, children in the back seat, daydreaming, reading road signs, eating or drinking, adjusting equipment in the car, operating the music system, tuning the radio, looking for house numbers or street names, objects falling onto the car, reading maps, advertising along the road, and insects in the car.
Nevertheless, the roadside surveys by Aasvik and colleagues show that it is mobile phones, in addition to music and passengers, that are the biggest causes of driver distraction.
“Here we found that around 40 per cent of drivers have done this in the last 30 minutes of driving,” Aasvik says.
He and his colleagues also found a small change in how drivers use mobile phones. Before, you talked on it, but now it is used for texting, navigation, and music.
Aasvik, O. & Sagberg, F. Evaluering av den nasjonale oppmerksomhetskampanjen ‘Takk for oppmerksomheten’ En undersøkelse med fire ulike datainnsamlingsmetoder i perioden 2018 – 2022 (Evaluation of the national awareness campaign ‘Thank you for the attention’ A study with gour different data collection methods in the period 2018 – 2022), Institute of Transport Economics, 2023.
Translated by Alette Bjordal Gjellesvik