Blurry truck driver at night.

Drivers staring dazed and confused at digital displays can travel 500 feet or more without ever looking at the road

Photo: Jim Park

I'm 65 years old and I wear bifocals. I have for years. I have three pairs of the things: one for real-life, walking about reading signs, menus and the like; another pair for working on the computer here at my desk. I own a third pair dedicated to driving. That's the most challenging environment.  

Obviously, I need to see out the windshield clearly, so the upper portion of the lens is adjusted for distance. But I also need to see the dashboard. The lower portion of the lens in my driving glasses is tuned for a distance slightly farther than arm's length -- essentially the distance the dash display is from my eye, and slightly below my main field of vision.

Those bifocals work well enough in my car, but it's a different story when I'm in a truck.

My vison is split between inside and out on a different plane than it is in my car. I prefer to sit tall in the seat, so I find myself looking down at the dash, which sometimes requires that I avert my gaze from the road ahead. The B-panel is a bit more complicated, especially in trucks with glass-panel dashboards.

There's often a lot of information on the B-panel display that can take a second or two to scan and identify. That's about 180 feet of travel where I was looking someplace other than out the front window.

Down the Submenu Rabbit Hole

It gets worse.

On some trucks, there's a row of electronic buttons displayed on the screen, but there's no tactile feel to the buttons, there are just graphics on a screen. To successfully press the button I want, I have to gaze down at the screen. A few more seconds go by while I visually scan the row of buttons. Another 180 feet, maybe more, if I miss my intended target on the first stab.

How long would it take me to find something buried two or more submenus deep? That's a lot of scanning and wishful thinking, hoping I can remember in which menu my target feature is located. Otherwise, I have to back out and start again.

Some trucks still have rows of physical switches to control various functions, like diff locks, power divider, air suspension dump, etc.

I like physical switches, but the problem for me in my advanced stage of decrepitude, I cannot clearly see the tiny little icons on the switches.

Remember the bifocals? I sometimes have to lean over and look down to get close enough to decipher the icons.

I'll bet there are a lot of drivers my age and older who have difficulty like this. My biggest pet peeve, back in the olden days, was radios mounted in the header above the windshield. We don't see that often anymore, but you can imagine the contortions I had to endure looking up through the bottom of my bifocals at the radio display.

Two Problems in One

Experts in the passenger car space have realized that drivers of different ages adopt to high-tech driving environments differently.

A study from 2019 took groups of drivers aged 21-36 and 55-75, put them into a 2018 model car and complete several tasks, such as programming music and a navigation system as well as placing a hands-free phone call. 

Not surprisingly, researchers found that older drivers had a harder time with these tasks compared to the younger drivers. In general, it was determined that many older drivers simply found that "technology-laden cars have too much to focus on, leading to instances where the drivers were, for all intents and purposes, distracted by some basic infotainment system navigation.

Another study conducted in the UK produced some alarming results surrounding the use of Apple Car Play and Android Auto. The research was undertaken for IAM RoadSmart, the UK’s largest independent road safety charity.

Drivers in a simulated driving environment were tasked with using some of the basic functions of both smartphone apps while behind the wheel.

IAM RoadSmart called the results "worrying," saying "infotainment systems impair reactions times behind the wheel more than alcohol and cannabis use."  

Among the scarier findings:

  • Controlling the vehicle’s position in the lane and keeping a consistent speed and headway to the vehicle in front suffered significantly when interacting with either Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, particularly when using touch control
  • Use of either system via touch control caused drivers to take their eyes off the road for longer than NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) recommended guidelines
  • Participants underestimated by as much as five seconds the time they thought they spent looking away from the road when engaging with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay via touch control. 
  • Reaction time to a stimulus on the road ahead was higher when selecting music through Spotify while using Android Auto and Apple CarPlay

I found the point about Spotify intriguing, and I think the same can be said for YouTube Music. The landing page can be quite an eyeful. Tons of colorful little icons fighting for your attention. And really tiny print to read.

You can read the whole IAM RoadSmart report here.

Big Trucks and Older Drivers

I'm unaware if any studies have been done on the use of glass-panel dashes and various infotainment devices in big trucks, and their impact on driver attentiveness -- especially among older drivers.

But I'd bet there's lots of driver facing camera footage showing older drivers peering out through the bottoms of their bifocal as various spots on the dashboard and taking two or three stabs at various icons.

I'm quite sure no research has ever been done or published on how truck drivers respond to digital information systems and displays, again, especially among older truck drivers.

Given our industry demographics -- one of the oldest average-age workforces in the country, I think it's something worth looking at.

We've recently seen several OEM introduce glass-panel dashboards as standard equipment. I wonder if they looked deeply into how older drivers interact with such technology?

About the author
Jim Park

Jim Park

Equipment Editor

A truck driver and owner-operator for 20 years before becoming a trucking journalist, Jim Park maintains his commercial driver’s license and brings a real-world perspective to Test Drives, as well as to features about equipment spec’ing and trends, maintenance and drivers. His On the Spot videos bring a new dimension to his trucking reporting. And he's the primary host of the HDT Talks Trucking videocast/podcast.

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