Though car manufacturers are working to minimize driver distractions, a recent study found that built-in touch screens are doing more harm than good. Here's what you need to know, and how to be safer while selecting music, answering calls, and driving around town.

By Dan Nosowitz
June 21, 2019

It's road trip season, which means you're probably figuring out your music playlist and which audiobooks you'll listen to as you cruise to your favorite vacation spot. Touchscreen navigation is already the norm in modern cars, and with increasing adoption of technology like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto—which replicate your phone’s functions on the screen—they look here to stay. But there’s growing concern about whether these are actually safe. 

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The large screen in the center of a car's dashboard can include all kinds of vital controls and information. You might control music and podcasts, climate, navigation, maybe even mechanical alerts. You’ll set up Bluetooth through this screen. You’ll change the clocks, adjust the volume, maybe get alerts for text messages and emails. And all of this from the driver’s seat, where you’re piloting a heavy vehicle capable of zooming well over a hundred miles per hour.

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A study by product designer Jacky Li, which he wrote about for UX Collective, set up a driving simulator with a touchscreen to measure how attention shifts while driving. Li’s study found that drivers would routinely glance at the screen, even when there was no particular need to. We do this with our smartphones, too: How often have you turned on the screen for no real reason, just out of habit? There’s just something drawing us to look at screens, sucking our attention off the road.

Some carmakers are working on this. After finding out in internal studies that reaching over to interact with a touchscreen caused drivers to swerve, Mazda announced recently that it will be removing the touchable screens from some of its cars in favor of more traditional knobs, switches, and buttons. But that's just one carmaker: The rest, it seems, will be sticking to the touchscreen. So, what can you do to help keep yourself and other drivers safe?

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1. Keep Your Phone at Road Level

If your car doesn't have a built-in touchscreen but you use a mount for your phone, try positioning it on top of the dashboard, where you can still see the road with your peripheral vision while you glance at the screen. Car mounts for phones are usually placed in the middle of the dashboard, just to the right of the steering wheel, which requires you to take your eyes off the road to look over at it.

2. Turn Off Your Touchscreen Entirely

You may not need your touchscreen for some local trips you know well, so why not simply switch it off? (Yes, that's an option!) Many cars have power buttons for the entire screen system. Switch it off when it's not needed for navigation, and you’ll find yourself much more focused on the drive, particularly if you're taking in your city's sights and sounds during a staycation.

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3. Use Your Voice

There's no doubt that voice control can be useful around the house; employing it while driving allows you to stay connected and keep both hands on the wheel. Li's study found that drivers sometimes lose their driving concentration while thinking of how to phrase things so the car would understand. But voice control is still far preferable to a touchscreen in terms of safety. Many steering wheels have a button right under your thumb (near the volume control) that triggers the car to start listening for your voice commands.

But perhaps the most important thing to remember is that every time you look at a screen in your car, you’re not looking at the road. Do your best to minimize the amount of time you spend both looking at and interacting with the screens in your car. You and your family will be safer for it!

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