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U of U research examines safety impact of increased technology in cars

SALT LAKE CITY -- New cars come with lots of technology, but is it keeping you safe or creating more distracted drivers?

It’s an issue the University of Utah has been studying for five years.

“You can update Facebook, you can text message in many of these cars,” said Joel Cooper, a researcher and associate professor at the University of Utah. “We observed a car where you can create drawings while driving down the road, you can upload it for critiquing."

As part of a study on distracted driving, the University of Utah asked 120 drivers to perform four basic tasks—calling, texting, tuning the radio, and programming navigation—in 30 new cars.

“If you're holding your phone and texting, that's illegal activity; but if it's integrated into the vehicle somehow that's excluded, so it is possible now to text message,” Cooper said.

Andrea Campos was one of the drivers in the study, whose every action was monitored.

“Sometimes it's those features that are advertised as the some of the newest or the flashiest that end up being actually the most distracting,” she said.

Of the 30 vehicles tested, 23 demanded high or very high levels of attention. The other seven were rated moderate.

The University won't rank them from best to worst because distracted driving is about the driver and not the car, but the bottom line is:

“We're really moving in the wrong direction with a lot of this technology,” Cooper said.

In 2015 the number of fatal accidents caused by distracted driving nationwide rose 7.2 percent. In 2016, the number increased by another 9 percent.

“We're seeing much higher numbers than we would even have anticipated ourselves,” said John Gleason, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation. “As far as UDOT and Zero Fatalities, we're going to continue to educate and get that message out there, and let people know how dangerous it is to take your focus off the road.”