Pretty much every study of in-car touchscreens’ effects on drivers reaches the same conclusion: They’re a serious distraction. This holds true for tech-literate younger drivers as it does for older ones who might face a steeper learning curve, and for well-rested drivers as well as those fatigued by a long day at work. That goes double for the millions of Americans like me, who live with attentional, cognitive, or similar impairments that make dealing with these overwrought gadgets while driving not just a nuisance, but an unnecessary hazard.
I speak as one of the roughly eight percent of U.S. adults believed by the National Institute of Mental Health to be living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Symptoms of this commonly misunderstood condition can include problems with emotional regulation, executive function, working memory, and of course, attention—though not in the way “deficit” implies. I’d liken managing my focus to trying to aim a fire hose; I have plenty of water to work with, but it’s coming out with so much pressure that it can be hard to keep the damn thing pointing in the right direction, never mind on target.
Getting the stream where it’s needed is often possible, but it means there’s but mist to spare for everything else—things outside my narrow scope can sometimes fail to register. This is perfectly manageable in normal driving, though; I can cycle through checking my mirrors, adjusting lane position, changing gears, reading signs, and so on without difficulty.
Adding a touchscreen to the equation, however, introduces a second, wholly separate environment to monitor while driving. Figuratively speaking, a touchscreen is a separate space, one that competes directly with the outside world for my one-channel attention. This might not be a problem if it weren’t for the poor working memory common to ADHD’s inattentive and combined subtypes, which can make people like me feel like goldfish, with their (fictitious) seconds-long memories. For me, this has on multiple occasions manifested as putting food in the microwave, only to completely forget what I just did, then get hungry again, and begin boiling a pot of water for pasta—only for beeping to pleasantly surprise me with the meal I forgot I was preparing. So you can imagine that driving increasingly complex cars is similarly challenging sometimes, just with movement involved.
Operating something like Ford’s dated, complex Sync 3 system on the move, then, be it to alter a vehicle function or skip a podcast ad, requires constantly re-orienting myself in two separate environments, losing awareness of the previous space with each switch. This balancing act is complex on an empty road, never mind in dense traffic on Interstate 25 through Denver, my navigation app bombarding me with alternate routes to evaluate. If I had to guess what this sensory assault does to crash rates for my fellow ADHDers, which was already 42 to 47 percent higher than the average according to data gathered in the late 2000s, I’d wager nothing good.
This isn’t to pretend problems with touchscreens are exclusive to my mental wiring, of course. Other conditions can complicate their use, be they fleeting, like hormonal or nutritional problems, or lasting, as with dyslexia or age-related neurological decline. They’re also plenty troublesome for healthy, sober people with better-understood wiring; at least one study concluded touchscreens can prolong drivers’ reactions times more than alcohol or marijuana, and even the U.S. Navy has taken a “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” stance toward screens on ships’ bridges. (And it’s worth remembering that given the generally less-than-great state of public transit in America, driving a car is often people’s only way of getting around and getting to work.)
I’m hardly the first person in automotive media to speak out against these electronic gimmicks, which were taken to new heights by a certain technophilic, occasionally ethically challenged California-based carmaker. But prior protests have gone unacknowledged by the auto industry, which has launched into a mindless arms race of ever-bigger, soon to be dashboard-spanning screens, sending cars on a trajectory to a place nobody wants to land: More distracted drivers, and more serious crashes.
Even as an early tablet adopter, having owned a first-gen iPad in high school, I’m not looking forward to having a monstrous touchscreen in my peripheral vision while I try to execute a lane change. I’m not excited by fiddling with sprawling, overcomplicated interfaces, or sharing the road with people who are—and might not treat distraction as a problem, having not been diagnosed with a predisposition toward it.
Touchscreen infotainment systems have become central to controlling modern cars’ evermore complex functions, though this has come at a cost to safety and ease of use—especially for people who experience life a bit differently from what we consider typical. It may not be hard to understand why touchscreens have caught on, but it’s strange to see them pass almost unquestioned as the future of human-to-vehicle interfaces. They aren’t, and as someone to whom this fad presents an inordinate risk, I’m done pretending they are.
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