Car technology drives distractions behind the wheel

Article date: 14 October 2008

Almost half of UK motorists are seriously distracted by in-car technology whilst driving, according to RAC's latest Report on Motoring*.

The new report reveals 46% of the drivers polled find gadgets severely divert their attention while on the road, with the figure rising to 55% among 17-24 year olds.

Although mobile phones and satellite navigation systems are often touted as the top distractions, the Report found the main culprit is more familiar technology:

  • 54% admit they have been seriously distracted by their radio, CD or DVD player, with the 17-24 year old age group again proving the most affected (63%)
  • 35% are distracted by their heating/air conditioning controls
  • 34% are distracted by their SatNav (this rises to 40% among young drivers and to 49% among high mileage drivers).
  • 32% say their mobile phone has seriously distracted them, rising to 41% among 17-24-year-olds.

RAC's Report on Motoring is celebrating its 20th year as the voice of the motorist. This technology report looks back over two decades of technological advances as well as looking at what drivers believe will happen over the next 20 years.

David Bizley, RAC's technical director, said: "In-car technology has come a long way since the late ‘80s. The advances have fallen into two camps - active and passive. Active technologies such as in-car entertainment are not always positive as they can cause driver distraction, while passive technologies, such as anti-locking brake systems (ABS), are undervalued as they are not fully understood or deemed less important as they come on automatically."

The latest report backs this up with millions of motorists not sure what technology is fitted to their cars, and indeed, how it actually works.

The report reveals that whilst ABS and immobilisers are fitted as standard on new cars by law, only 70% of motorists knew that they had ABS, whilst only 68% knew that they had immobilisers.

And as cars get more technologically complex, drivers are faced with more and more warning signals on their dashboard. These are meant alert drivers to potential problems, but it seems they are also leading to confusion over what all these signals mean, for example only half of drivers recognise the symbol for an airbag.

It's not surprising then that 85% of motorists believe the complexity of cars today means people need to be taught how to use in-car technology properly.

When looking to the next 20 years of motoring, drivers believe that technology is going to advance even further:

  • 23% believe the cars will be manufactured with in-built technology that enables the driver to simply input an end destination then sit back and enjoy the ride
  • More than a third (35%) think cars will be able to "talk" to each other in order to pinpoint and avoid traffic
  • 71% believe cars will be able to tell you when you are driving over the speed limit, with 50% predicting cars will not allow drivers to exceed the speed limits
  • 60% predict fingerprint, voice or breath recognition will replace keys as the traditional method of starting a car.

Some of this technology is already filtering through into the car market and whilst some of the speculation may seem far-fetched, this type of technology could become reality if previous motorists' predictions are anything to go by:

  • In 1989, 23% of motorists predicted that on board computers providing directions would be fitted to all cars
  • 26% of people surveyed in 1990 thought cars would have in-built telephones and fax machines, which is incredibly accurate if you replace faxes with emails
  • In 1992, 57% believed airbags would be fitted in cars as standard.

Bizley added: "Technology has always been a key feature of the car, but there have been some real leaps when it comes to the computers and electronics involved.

"While these technologies have improved car safety in many respects, and improved the in-car experience of the driver, they do have their drawbacks - namely distracting the motorist while driving and confusing them when it comes to the number of warning signals which can be found on dashboards.

"It is the use of the in-car technologies we take for granted such as the CD player and air conditioning that cause as much of a distraction as mobile phones and SatNav. These technologies aren't dangerous in themselves but they must be used responsibly.

"Before you embark on any trip you should always make sure you and your car are fully prepared for the journey, even down to choosing your favourite CD or radio station and getting the temperature controls right.

"If you really do need to change any thing while driving, do it safely - preferably by pulling over at a suitable location."

In its Report on Motoring, RAC is also calling for:

  • A Europe-wide code of practice to standardise the dashboard display symbols and lights. It should be made easier for motorists to understand the meaning of warning lights as well as the level of risk they face.
  • Wider use of LCD screens in new cars to provide drivers with plain English explanations of warnings and what can be done to remedy the problems
  • Car manuals to be developed and written in a more consumer friendly with downloadable quick user guides for the second hand market. Manufacturers should also ensure their warning symbols and explanations are readily accessible online, so that customers can identify problems quickly.


RAC Press office contact:
Jenny Chapman on 01603 689894 / 07800 699668
Adrian Tink on 01603 681922 / 07800 690602
Jennifer Hardisty on 0207 908 6465
Amy Funston on 0207 908 6433

ISDN telephone interviews available. Filming opportunities at RAC Bescot, with views of the M6 and RAC's busy call centre can be arranged.  

Notes to editors:

* About Report on Motoring
The most comprehensive report of its kind, the RAC Report on Motoring 2008 "Twenty Years of Motoring" this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. This second technology report and is based on the views of 1,034 British motorists (defined as currently having a valid driving licence and driving at least once a month). For the technology report, the drivers - who were nationally representative on age, gender and socio-economic groups - were interviewed online by Quadrangle, between 12 August and 20 August, 2008.

Until 1999, the RAC's Reports on Motoring were called "The Lex Report on Motoring". Despite this change in name, consistent research methods have been used throughout.

About RAC
With around seven million members, RAC is one of the UK's most progressive motoring organisations, providing services for both private and business motorists.  Whether it's roadside assistance, windscreen repair and replacement, learning to drive, vehicle inspections and checks, legal and financial services or up-to-the-minute traffic and travel information - RAC is able to meet motorists' needs. RAC incorporates BSM, RAC Auto Windscreens, RAC Direct Insurance and HPI.

RAC is committed to providing the very highest levels of service to its members and has been ranked first for customer service by J.D. Power and Associates' UK Roadside Assistance Study for the past two years.

Aviva bought RAC in May 2005.  The acquisition brings together RAC's powerful brand and customer base with the expertise and leading position in motor insurance of Norwich Union Insurance (part of Aviva). Norwich Union is the UK's largest insurer, insuring one in seven motor vehicles and with a market share of around 15%.  

RAC is part of  Aviva, the world's fifth largest insurance group which operates in 27 countries.  

RAC's news releases and a selection of images are available from the internet press centre at

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