Inside the industry: does new UK legislation ignore in-car tech?

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Rules are set to tighten on mobile phone use while driving, but there are other issues lawmakers should be concerned with

Perhaps you, like me, were surprised when the government announced plans to tighten the use of phones while driving last month. From next year, anyone caught holding a phone to take photos, pick music or play a game while driving faces a £200 fine and six points on their licence. Previously, police had to prove a charge of dangerous driving to prosecute anyone doing those things – a loophole that was often exploited. 

While it seems an obvious move, considering the link between paying attention and driving safely, it also suggests that the pace of technological advancement is moving far faster than the legal framework. In a world where eating an apple could land you in hot water for careless driving, it seems questionable why putting your phone into a fixed holder suggests legality and downright ludicrous why so many car controls are being buried layers deep into infotainment systems, making drivers take their eyes off the road when previously an intuitive button push would do. 

The Department for Transport records that in 2019 (which we must take as the last year of normal statistics for now), there were 2563 road crashes in the UK in which distraction was a contributory factor – about 3% of the total. No wonder: the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) last year revealed that the concentration level required to work some touchscreens put drivers more at risk than if they were using a handheld phone, and sometimes more so than if they were drunk or on drugs.

A two-second distraction doubles your risk of an accident, yet TRL found that some systems need up to 20 seconds of concentration. 

We’ve got here partly through demand: so much of our lives are spent using phones that the assumption has been made that we want to take that environment with us wherever we go. Some of it is marketing, Tesla having led the way in using a screen to physically demonstrate shifting lines of tech. Certainly too there’s an element of cost-saving: if a screen can do it all, why spend even a few pounds on buttons that could instead be put on the bottom line? 

The trend is universal, but seemingly no lawmaker has yet stepped up to dial back their use. And the new car launches at the Los Angeles motor show suggest that the lag between common-sense lawmaking and car makers’ unapologetic pursuit of this trend is only widening. 

Worryingly, statistics suggest that while 90% of us say we wouldn’t use a distracting system, more than half admit we have. Yet for now, self-governance appears to be the only form of governance that we have.

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