Buying a Car for an Older Family Member? You Might Want to Avoid Infotainment Systems – Or Find One that Can be Turned Off

Infotainment System
Photo: Obi Onyeador on Unsplash

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In-car infotainment systems can be a distraction. Photo: Lillie Morales

Depending on who you ask, infotainment systems are either the best thing ever, or they’re the worst.

Personally, I love having my navigation available and easily visible at eye level, but I have scars in my eyes from eye surgery, so some infotainment screens cause some glare. Other folks absolutely hate having a bright light in their line of sight. Other people absolutely love it.

But there’s some reason for concern, especially when it comes to older drivers, new research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has found.

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Eyes Off the Road = Greater Chance of a Crash

Anyone who takes their eyes off the road runs the risk of getting into an accident. All it takes is a two-second diversion, and your risk of a crash doubles, AAA reports. That’s bad news for anyone who may want to change a song, reroute a destination, or block a pop-up.

Infotainment systems can exacerbate some of these problems; the screen has replaced the cell phone for some drivers, so we can see it as an improvement, but it’s still apt to cause issues.

Why Older Drivers Are At Risk

AAA found that older drivers (55-75) had to remove their eyes and attention from the road for longer periods of time — an average of more than eight seconds — than younger drivers (21-36). If two seconds doubles the risk of your crash, these older drivers are at a serious risk.

AAA also projects that, by 2030, more than one in five drivers on the road will be over the age of 65; that age group is the fastest-growing demographic in the United States. And if that’s the case, then roads are about to get much more dangerous. Even voice-command systems can feel unwieldy and difficult to use.

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What’s the Problem?

In essence, infotainment systems just aren’t intuitive for seniors. They didn’t grow up with an abundance of touchscreens, so having yet another one in the car can cause sensory overwhelm. I’m a younger person, and there are some infotainment systems that even I struggle with. 

Some systems require specialized commands or controls. Some include multiple menus. Some add in another layer of complexity with things like rotary dials or touchpads.  

AAA asked participants in two different age groups — the two mentioned above — to test the infotainment systems in six different vehicles from 2018. They tested the touch and voice controls to do things like make a call, send a text, tune the radio, or program navigation while behind the wheel.

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The Results

Even if you think you’re pretty adept at using your infotainment system, the AAA study showed that we’re all removing our attention from the road for significant periods of time. Here’s how it breaks down:

Audio Entertainment

  • Younger: 18 seconds
  • Older: 25.4 seconds

Calling and Dialing

  • Younger: 17.7 seconds
  • Older: 22.4 seconds

Text Messaging

  • Younger: 27.7 seconds
  • Older: 33.8 seconds

Navigation Entry

  • Younger: 31.4 seconds
  • Older: 40 seconds

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What Can Automakers Change?

Automakers have already been changing and optimizing the infotainment systems in their cars for the past few years, so 2021 models can feel drastically different than their 2018 counterparts. 

That being said, AAA has some ideas for improving infotainment systems. If you’re shopping for a car for an older person, these are the features you want to look for that’ll really keep yourself of your loved one safe:

  • Improved voice-command, including natural-language request
  • Simplifying menus or removing them altogether
  • Simplifying or removing really complex center consoles that are loaded with buttons or include extras like rotary knobs or touch pads
  • Positioning of screens in the line of sight
  • Positioning the location of frequently-used controls closer to the driver
  • Better head-up displays

Or, guide older drivers to cars with media screens that can simply be turned off. Many cars have screens that turn off but still allow the radio to be tuned and played; others allow the system to be shut off entirely.

It’s also a good idea to restrict your use of your infotainment system to times when you aren’t driving, or to practice these controls while stopped to build familiarity with them.

This is great advice for anyone of any age.

I'm Elizabeth Blackstock, managing editor of AGGTC, blogger, journalist, novelist, editor, MA/MFA graduate student, wife, motorsport fanatic, and bearer... More about Elizabeth Blackstock