Screens off: The simple solution to nighttime driving distractions

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A key selling feature in most new vehicles is how large the screen in the dash is. Touchscreen or ringed with dials, size matters.

It’s a boon for aging eyes. It’s also easier to locate your information with a shorter glance, surely making them safer. But it took a recent road trip with a friend who has a little attention deficit disorder (ADD) to make something very clear to me: they’re a huge distraction.

I’ve always preferred clean cockpits, streamlined dashes and fewer toggles and toys. Driving should be about driving, not mashing away at a phone or a screen every few seconds and sending distracted driving crash rates higher than alcohol and drug impaired ones. We’re entertaining ourselves to death.

My co-driver showed me how he dealt with it: he didn’t just dim the screen, he blackened it.

Duh. I’ve since found the setting in every car I’ve been in, and after some initial adjustment and several more long trips, I realize it’s the best driving tip I’ve received in a long time. No more flashing from a navigation system as it scrolls through knots of roads, no more visual updates from radio stations about what they’re saying out loud anyway. Especially at night, you have reduced eye strain from competing light sources. It’s a dashboard, not a midway. 

Set your navigation system at the outset, and you continue to get directions verbally, and in some cars, in a reading near your speedometer. I did it in baby steps, first dimming the screen then outright shutting it down. It takes less than a second to pull it back up, but the fact remains, the fewer places there are to draw your eyes to, the more likely your eyes will stay on the road, the only place they belong.

If you’ve driven past vehicles with kids in the rear compartment watching movies on seat-mounted screens, you know how distracting they can be to other drivers. I know they’re not in my car, but try to take your eyes from them. It’s hard. Our brains are hardwired to detect changes in our surroundings for our own safety; the problem now is that we are providing distractions that are becoming a danger themselves.

Car manufacturers are in a tough spot of their own design. Nobody is going to start offering less connectivity, fewer bells and whistles or outdated software. The toothpaste is all the way out of that tube. Modern safety systems on cars have advanced with the same speed, but the cynical among us can’t help but wonder if much of that safety is needed to combat so much of that distraction. If I wasn’t futzing with a nav system or poking through six levels of input feeds, maybe I wouldn’t need lane departure warning, a feature I half-jokingly call text assist. It’s always up to the driver to be competent and safe, but how many cookies are you going to throw down in front of a kid before they go for them?

I drove up to James Bay once, and if you’ve seen it on a map, you’ll know it’s hour after hour of nothing. A straight line on the navigation map, never wavering, never changing. It’s similar to heading across the Trans-Canada Highway through parts of many provinces and all of Saskatchewan. There is only one road to James Bay and nowhere to go but up to the top; we didn’t need a map, but by habit had it displayed. It was worse than distracting, it was hypnotic.

It takes a lot of people a long time to finally understand the many features offered on their new car, if they ever do. I tell them to put the owner’s manual in the bathroom; it’s an easy way to ensure at least some of it gets read. But many of the small things, like disengaging the horn when you depress the locking button on your keyfob, get overlooked. Most of us know there is an arrow on the gas tank icon that shows you which side to fill up on (really useful on rentals). More high-end cars have automatic high beams, so you know that feature will start to show up farther down the food chain in short order. 

Manufacturers aren’t just making leaps and bounds in the safety arena, they really are tweaking the smallest things to make your ride both incredibly comfortable and a seamless transition from your home or office. These are all good things, but remember that many of them are still distractions, no matter how useful or pretty. Find the built-in firewalls that can cut out the ones you don’t need all the time.

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