Experts say ‘smart’ features in cars may actually be distracting drivers

SALT LAKE CITY - As cars continue to get smarter, are they actually making drivers less aware?

It’s a question that has popped up after distracted driving deaths spiked in the last two years.

Car sales representatives tell Fox 13 News that sometimes they are spending an hour or two just going over new features with people before they drive off the lot.

With so much to know, is it too much, and are all of the extra features even helpful?

Salesman Andrew Uribe took Fox 13 News for a ride in a brand new Lincoln MKX, and he showed off some of the features many new cars come equipped with.

"Front collision, pre-collision warning for you, you have all of the lane keeping,” he said.

A safety video shows how some of those features work. In some cases, if you start drifting out of your lane, the car will gently push you back.

Try to change lanes without checking over your shoulder?

“The blind-spot gives you a nice bright yellow indication that somebody's right there in your corner on either side,” Uribe said.

But all that sounds safe, so what’s the problem?

"Technology is more distracting than we thought it would be," said David Strayer, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Utah.

For years, Strayer has been studying how people interact with technology, specifically, brain function while driving.

“It’s worse than we thought,” he said of the recent trends.

Between Bluetooth connections to cell phones and 19-button, multi-function steering wheels, many tools help you cut down on the time your eyes are off the road. But Strayer said your brain still has a lot of work to do, and it can’t do it all at once.

“We’re tending to use the prefrontal cortex, the front part of the brain, and we don’t multitask,” Strayer said. "If you're trying to do two things, like talking on your cellphone or text, it means the driving is not getting any attention for some period of time.”

Nationwide in 2015, the number of fatal accidents caused by distracted driving rose 7.2 percent. This year it increased another 9 percent from that rate. A big part of the problem is people playing with in-car features at red lights.

Strayer explains: “After you finish, there's a lot of things you haven't been doing: like scanning for where pedestrians are, what the status of the road is, are you in your lane? Has the traffic light changed?"

Researchers say by the time you finish and pick your head up, on average, it will take you 27 seconds to get re-familiarized with your surroundings. That could be the difference between noticing or not seeing a pedestrian.

"A year ago, pedestrian fatals skyrocketed,” said Lt. Todd Royce with the Utah Highway Patrol.

Royce said drivers can talk on their cell phones, but they are not allowed to drive and manipulate the device at the same time. Stricter laws that make driving and handling phones a criminal offense may be to thank for slowing the upward trend in crashes.

The law, changed in 2014, says if you're caught driving and handling a phone you could get locked up for 3 months and face a $750 fine. If you injure or kill someone while doing it, you could be looking at a $10,000 fine and 15 years in prison.

“Do I think it’s helping? Absolutely,” Royce said of the changes.

A breakdown of distracted driving collisions from last year shows cell-phone caused accidents have leveled out, but accidents from distractions inside cars are on the rise.

“So this is an unprecedented increase in the number of fatal crashes on our roadways," Strayer said. "We haven't seen this in the last 50 years, and at least some of that is likely due to all the distracting kinds of things that are going on inside cars.”

So, the laws to curb texting and driving have helped, but as far as we know, no new laws are in the works here in Utah to address driving with other inside technology distractions.