New-model cars are loaded with more driver distractions than ever before, including navigation systems that take an average of 40 seconds to program, according to a study of more than two dozen 2017 vehicles.
"It's a staggering increase in the technology and complexity of the vehicle in the last two to three years," said David Strayer, lead scientist in the study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Distracted driving is underreported because many drivers don't admit to their distraction, but in 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recorded that 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers.
The AAA foundation tested the distraction factor in 30 different new car models, concluding that 23 of them had technology on board that demanded the driver pay a high or very high level of attention to it while the car was moving.
"We've seen the things that are enabled in the car keep growing and growing," Strayer said. "Often times it leads the driver who purchases the car to think 'It must be safe because it's in the car. Why would they put in otherwise?' "
The AAA study was coupled with a survey that found that nearly 70 percent of people wanted new technology in their cars, but only 24 percent felt that the technology worked perfectly.
"Drivers want technology that is safe and easy to use," said AAA chief executive Marshall Doney, "but many of the features added to infotainment systems today have resulted in overly complex and sometimes frustrating experiences for drivers."
NHTSA issued voluntary guidelines to automakers in 2012, saying they should block tasks that distract motorists from driving unless the vehicle is parked.
While most states have passed laws against texting behind the wheel, and some have required hands-free cellphone use, Strayer said many manufacturers allow operation of navigation centers and infotainment options while a car is moving.
"What we're seeing is that many of these companies have enabled technology that's very demanding and not consistent with the NHTSA guidelines," he said. "In the old cars it took two seconds to change the radio. Now it may take 24 seconds. Many times it's multiple screens or entries to get that infotainment system to do what you want."
Some vehicles allow Internet searches or interaction with social media. The worst among the demanding optional technology is navigational equipment.
"Navigating is a real clear task that has a high level of demand," Strayer said. "It takes an average of 40 seconds of high-level visual and cognitive demand" to handle tasks like entering an address."
The report found that infotainment systems could be made safer by locking out navigational programing, text messaging and social media while the vehicle is moving.
Doney called them "tasks we have no business doing behind the wheel."
"AAA has met with interested auto manufacturers and suppliers to discuss our findings," Doney said. "Automakers should aim to reduce distractions by designing systems that are no more visually or mentally demanding that listening to the radio or an audiobook."
The number of people killed in car crashes last year exceeded 40,000 for the first time in a decade, reversing a trend in which traffic fatalities dwindled for several years.
The statistics released by the National Safety Council in February offer the first full picture of fatalities on the country's roadways in 2016, and the numbers were significantly higher than those projected by NHTSA due to a simple mathematical difference.
The safety council data includes traffic deaths that occurred more than 30 days after a crash and those that happened on private property, such as driveways and parking lots.