American drivers are demanding increasingly complex infotainment systems when they shop for new cars.
But a new AAA study says they're putting themselves at risk if they use the systems while driving.
The news is worse for luxury car buyers. The infotainment systems that could prove most distracting are those installed in some of the most highly prized vehicles.
The Tesla Model S, Audi Q7 and Volvo XC60 are among models determined to require "very high" infotainment system demands on the driver, the AAA study concluded. So were the Honda Civic Touring and Ridgeline models, Mazda 3 Touring, Subaru Crosstrek Premium and Ford Mustang GT.
At the other end of the spectrum, said to require only "moderate" driver demand, are the systems on the Chevrolet Equinox, Hyundai Santa Fe, Lincoln MKC, Ford F250 XLT and Toyota's Camry, Corolla and Sienna.
It's all a matter of how much technology is available, and how intelligently it is deployed.
"Some in-vehicle technology can create unsafe conditions for drivers on the road by increasing the time they spend with their eyes off the road and hands off the wheel," said Dr. David Yang, executive director for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Drivers are more at risk, Yang said, if the infotainment system isn't designed with safety in mind.
"When an in-vehicle technology is not properly designed, simple tasks for drivers can become complicated and require more effort from drivers to complete," Yang said.
In its study, the AAA asked 120 drivers ages 21 to 36 to help study 30 different 2017 model vehicles. Observing the subject drivers, researchers studied how long drivers took their eyes off the road to use infotainment systems, and how much mental energy they expended.
A low level of demand was equal to listening to a car radio. Very high demand was the equivalent of trying to balance a checkbook while driving.
More demand means more time, which decreases safety. Programming navigation into a nonintuitive system can require 40 seconds for a driver to complete, the AAA study said. At 25 miles per hour, that driver could travel the length of four football fields while trying to enter a destination.
Auto experts have concluded that distracted driving is responsible for at least 10% of U.S. auto fatalities. A 2016 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that 3,477 drivers and passengers lost their lives to distracted driving in 2015, the most recent year for which full-year figures are available. An additional 391,000 were injured in crashes that involved distracted drivers.
The AAA splits the blame for distraction behind the wheel between automakers that build complex systems and drivers who ought to know not to use them while their vehicles are in motion.
"Some of the latest systems on the market now include functions unrelated to the core tasks of driving, like sending text messages, checking social media or surfing the web — tasks we have no business doing behind the wheel," AAA President and CEO Marshall Doney said. "Drivers should avoid the temptation to engage with these technologies, especially for nondriving tasks."
But automakers are in a bind, said Autotrader executive analyst Michelle Krebs, because buyers are seeking the best new onboard technology.
"Consumers tell us they want more and more of these features in their vehicles," Krebs said. "But accidents are going up, and exactly for this reason — distracted driving."