With the increasing use of in-car toys among fleet drivers, Tony Meredith discovers there is a darker side to this new technology

The company car driver is the king of the gadget. Most fleet drivers possess some kind of in-car technical toy; a sat nav system, speed camera detector or a PDA harnessed to the dash. But there is a downside to all this electronic wizardry... their driving could be getting more dangerous! Sales of iPods and portable satellite navigation systems rocketed last Christmas, marking the emergence of the in-car gadget. Although there have been a wealth of 'must have' car gadgets in the past, today's latest technological marvels have really captured the imagination of drivers. But the alarming fact is that these same gadgets can divert the driver's attention away from the road.

The Government brought in a ban preventing drivers from using hand-held mobile phones while driving because they were felt to be diverting drivers’ attention. With a fine of £30 -soon to rise to £60 and to include a three-point penalty on your licence – it’s no laughing matter. Yet, people are still openly flouting the law and nothing has been done so far to control the use of other in-car equipment. “Many drivers are spending longer than ever in their cars and they are using gadgets to help make their journeys easier and more enjoyable,” points out Stephen Dilley, managing director of Ryland Unity Vehicle Solutions, a leading UK contract hire firm. “However, these gizmos are just as likely to cause frustration and create a distraction.

“At particular risk are business drivers who spend their entire day in the car. Often their vehicles become a mobile office, fully fitted with satellite navigation system, PDA, iPod, speed trap radar and mobile phone, all of which are lined up on the dashboard and being used while on the road. “The car is no longer a means of getting from A to B; it has become an extension of the home and office.” Furthermore research has shown that following directions from a satellite navigation system is very distracting. Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) investigated whether driving performance and mental effort are affected when a driver has to monitor information from another source in the car.

They found that verbal instructions, such as those provided by co-drivers or talking satellite navigation systems, require significantly more effort from the driver. Using a rally driving simulator, one group of drivers were given no co-driver information, and were required to merely follow the road. A second group were given information on the direction and severity of corners from a verbal source and in a third scenario they were given this information in the form of colour coded arrows on the simulator screen.

While there was no difference in the time taken to complete the simulated course, data collected via questionnaire and by an eye monitor which measured ‘pupil response’ during the task showed drivers found both the verbal instructions and visual arrows more taxing. Mark Wilson, the psychologist who led the research, said: “We had expected the additional visual information to produce more effort from the driver than a voice telling them which way to go, as driving is inherently visually demanding.

“However the experiment showed that dealing with verbal commands also requires considerably more effort from the driver. These findings may have some practical implications for the use and development of in-vehicle navigation systems which are a growing feature of modern cars.”

It’s evidence such as this that has led many experts to believe that the Government should legislate against the use of hand-held or portable devices now, in a similar way to the mobile phone ban. Gavin Jones, head of ProAct Masterlease’s risk management service, argues that although these devices are covered under the general ‘catch-all’ regulations for driving a vehicle safely, this was the case before the ban on mobile phones was introduced. He reckons that the same specifications should now be introduced for the wider range of electronic equipment, the use of which has mushroomed in recent years.

“The speed of communication and the ability to receive wireless emails on the move poses a potential nightmare as it means that many drivers will be distracted and simply won’t have proper control of the vehicle,” says Jones. “All mobile communication devices by definition could distract the driver and businesses could fall foul of the forthcoming corporate manslaughter law for failing to adequately discharge their duty of care if they do not have communicated policies in place that forbid their use while driving.”

Having a policy in place is the key as Alexandra Pittortou, a director of fleet management software specialist Jaama, agrees: “This is a tricky issue. Fleet managers should make it clear to their drivers that operating any portable gadget, such as a satellite navigation system, must only been done when the vehicle is parked with the ignition off. It should be simple enough for a driver to set their destination in the navigation system before they set off so that, while they are driving along, there is no need to operate any of the buttons.”

There is another issue to consider here. The addition of a portable device to a car can restrict the driver’s view if it is placed above the line of the dashboard, in the driver’s line of sight. And with so many gadgets available – and with many drivers having more than just one in their car at a time -the amount of cabling that festoons the cockpit can be a hazard.

“Companies need to ensure they have in place strict guidelines for the use and fitting of electronic gadgets in company vehicles as part of their duty of care policy,” says Dilley.”Since the ban on using hand held mobile phones while driving came into force in 2003, companies have cracked down on this area for fear of being prosecuted themselves,”continues Dilley. “However, the next generation of in-car gadgets seem to have been overlooked, especially the satellite navigation system which is becoming a fixture in almost every company vehicle.”