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Blog: Are sat navs a driving distraction?

Built-in car sat nav system

Has in-car technology such as sat navs, intergrated phones and touchscreens made you a better or worse driver? It seems motorists are split on the subject.

What happened to reading road signs?

It seems that many drivers don't - for fear of disobeying the sat nav.

On a recent road trip in a friend's car, I pointed towards a road sign.

"Oh, there are are roadworks coming up", I said. "You have to follow the diverted traffic signs."

Sat nav versus road signs

"No, I can't", she huffed. "I'm following what the sat nav says. "Er, yes", I protested, bemused, "but the road sign says…" She cut me off.

"!I can't concentrate if I look at the road signs," she snapped. "I'm concentrating on the sat nav. I don't know this area so I'm doing what the sat nav says."

Now, before you start, no, her "confusion" wasn't because she's a woman: after all, we're famed for our multitasking abilities.

She is, in fact, a very experienced driver. But we were driving in an unfamiliar area. So she decided to listen to the machine - and throw common sense out the window.

Sat nav killed the road map

I stayed silent for most of the rest of the three- (but should have been two-) hour journey.

Now, sat navs are an amazing piece of technology. Of course, this doesn't dismiss maps which I am (just about) old enough to remember using to get from A to B, before the advent of GPS.

But as great as maps are, it really does help to have a passenger with you so you're not looking down at a road map or a map print-out while doing 70mph on the motorway.

Sat navs have done away with this - except now our eyes are glued to a little black box, whether it's a sat nav or a smartphone with a map app.

Technology trumps common sense

Why do we allow technology to override our common sense?

We drive down lanes where it's pretty obvious we shouldn't go because "the sat nav said so". We ignore road signs that have stood the test of time, again, "because the sat nav said so".

The RAC's 2013 annual report on motoring found drivers split on whether sat navs have made driving more safe or less so.

Almost a third of motorists polled - 30 per cent - agreed sat navs had made driving more safe.

But 23 per cent of motorists said they thought that sat navs had made driving riskier.

Sat nav on top of a map

24% readjust or programme sat nav while driving

I'm inclined to agree with the latter view, as the RAC's poll also found that 24 per cent of all motorists admitting to readjusting or programming their sat nav when driving.

Not only is this an increase of 2 per cent on last year's poll, this figure rises to 30 per cent of 25 to 44-year-olds.

But sat navs aren't the only distracting in-car technology.

70% say in-car technology 'distracting'

Seven out of 10 drivers say using in-car technology such as touchscreens, integrated phones and access to Facebook and Twitter, distracted them from driving.

This is according to research by consumer organisation Which?.

It tested the systems of eight of the UK's bestselling carmakers and found many features difficult to use while driving.

So what's to be done? Well, Which? has created an "in-car technology charter" with a 10-point checklist to make these systems less distracting.

The Which? in-car technology charter

  • Drivers shouldn't need to look away from the road for more than two seconds at a time to operate a single device.
  • The fewest possible inputs should be needed to operate devices. Developing better voice-recognition systems is strongly desirable.
  • Key functions that you need to access every day need dedicated buttons (radio station/CD track selection, air circulation and heating controls), rather than being buried in on-screen menu systems.
  • Steering wheel controls should be placed in convenient locations on the front of the wheel.
  • Entering sat nav destinations should be disabled when moving.
  • Centre console displays should be placed high up, so the driver doesn't have to glance down at them. Smaller second screens in the instrument cluster (or a head-up display) are useful for showing key journey information and "next turn" navigation prompts.
  • Pairing a mobile phone to the car via Bluetooth should only be permitted while stationary.
  • Drivers shouldn't be able to initiate phone calls while driving other than via voice control. Accepting a call should also be simple.
  • While on the move, the car should read out SMS messages rather than display text on a screen.
  • Any internet, email, social media and TV/DVD functions should only be accessible when stationary.

When distraction proves fatal

And sometimes sat navs and other in-car technology distractions can prove fatal.

Last week a woman who knocked down and killed a cyclist in Twyford, Berkshire, while adjusting her car's sat nav, was convicted of causing death by dangerous driving.

Reading Crown Court heard that Victoria McClure, of Charvil, Berkshire, "drove blind" for almost 20 seconds before the collision with cyclist Anthony Hilson on September 16, 2012.

This appears to give even more weight to the argument put forward by Which?.

What do you think?

Has in-car technology such as sat navs, intergrated phones and touchscreens made driving less safe?

We want to hear from you! You can share your views on the message board below.

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Naphtalia Loderick

Naphtalia Loderick

Naphtalia Loderick covers all things consumer for She started out on a weekly newspaper, via a national news agency and a stint in the fun but ‘not as glamorous as it appears on screen’ world of TV at the BBC researching consumer films for The One Show.

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