The dangers of touch screens: handy device or hazardous distraction?

Charles Rangeley-Wilson bemoans the ubiquitious use of dangerous touch screens in vehicles and says they need to be banned – now.

We need to stop this touch-screen craze before someone gets hurt. We really do. A conversation on a plane ride back from the USA has finally compelled me to pen the antediluvian rant I’ve long wanted to write, but had held back on.

I was sitting next to a young German engineer who develops ‘haptic’ technology for car infotainment systems. Haptic in this application describes a way of making touchscreen ‘buttons’ more tactile, a topic of some interest to me. I told him I had big reservations about these touch-screen systems that manufacturers are now fitting willy-nilly into all new cars.

I said that they were under-developed and dangerous and yet the car makers had locked themselves in to a computerised arms race because the public is now stupidly enthralled by the shiny pools of glass, full of tempting distractions.

And do you know what? He agreed. He said that he thought touchscreens would be banned or greatly changed within a decade and that this would be driven – just as it had been with mobile phones – by accident statistics.

This was extraordinary, as I had written to the Minister of Transport more a year ago to say the same thing. I received a bland, off-the-shelf reply reassuring me the Ministry was fully engaged in the process of ensuring these screens were as safe as possible.

‘When I’m driving, I like to have 99% of my hand-eye coordination dedicated to the business of not injuring anyone, or even myself, by accident.’

If that was true, I thought, what would the outcome be if they weren’t fully engaged? A tsunami of improvised systems is still being allowed onto our roads, dangerous to its very core because of one simple thing: such systems require precise hand-eye coordination and often for extended periods of time.

Mixed Race woman using touch screen navigation map in car

Now, I don’t know about you, or the guys at the Ministry who are trying so hard, or the development teams at all the car makers who have the business of ‘pushing’ these screens to an addicted marketplace. When I’m driving, I like to have 99% of my hand-eye coordination dedicated to the business of not injuring anyone, or even myself, by accident. Not to trying to find Radio 4 or adjust the temperature of the air-conditioning system.

It’s pretty simple: the best way to see if the controls for music, air-conditioning and so on are safe to use when driving is to put someone in the driver’s seat and ask them to find the dials with a blindfold on. If they can’t, the design is fundamentally faulty.

‘A few years ago, a lorry driver killed an entire family on the A34 when scrolling through music on his smartphone and now we’re fitting them into the centre of every dashboard. ‘

The car makers know this: until recently, car controls were tactile, Braille-like, with subtle edges or textures you could feel, buttons and dials arranged in patterns you could learn. At the limit of distraction, a quick glance would reassure you that you’d selected the correct temperature, radio station or phone number, taking a fraction of a second at most, as if you were checking your speed.

Rear area image showing automobile occurrence/Automotive rear area video camera

Not now. Not with a touchscreen. The ‘buttons’ aren’t discernible by feel and, with scrolling menus, many are never in the same place twice. It’s actually quite hard to tell how far away a black touchscreen is from your fingertip, so you have to concentrate to ensure you only touch this uncertain distance and moving place when your finger is exactly over the thing you want to select. And whoops, you’ve crashed.

A few years ago, a lorry driver killed an entire family on the A34 when scrolling through music on his smartphone and now we’re fitting them into the centre of every dashboard. A situation the Ministry of Transport has fully under control? I’m not so sure.