AAA is warning motorists that the advanced vehicle technologies designed to help keep them safe could be posing an unexpected risk over time.

A new AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study finds that drivers can become too reliant on the technology after becoming comfortable with it, leading them to multi-task and engage in other distracted driving behaviors. The study results found drivers who owned vehicles equipped with advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) were almost twice as likely to take their eyes off the road and be less engaged when using those technologies.

Technology such as lane-keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control, are meant to assist—not replace—the driver. Regardless of trust or comfort in a system, AAA warns drivers to remain alert and attentive to the roadway at all times.

Familiarity leads to complacency

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety partnered with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to study distracted driving among two groups of drivers – those who already owned vehicles equipped with advanced driver assist system (ADAS) technology and those who were given ADAS-equipped vehicles to drive for purposes of the study.

Researchers recorded and analyzed driver behavior using video cameras mounted in the cars.  When simultaneously using adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance, these drivers showed a 50 percent increase in engaging in some sort of secondary task and an 80 percent increase in performing tasks that divert their hands or eyes away from the task of driving.

In contrast, motorists who were provided with an ADAS-equipped vehicle were more likely to engage in distracted driving behaviors while driving manually than while automated systems were active.

Secondary tasks that impact driving attentiveness can take a variety of forms. Examples of multi-tasking that involve vision might include watching pedestrians or looking down at the central console. Manual secondary tasks observed included such actions as holding a cell phone or smoking. A visual-manual task would be texting or adjusting vehicle controls. Cognitive tasks would include engaging in conversation with a passenger or through a hands-free device.

“When speed control or steering are automated, the driver is still required to monitor traffic and be ready to resume full control of the vehicle,” said Leslie Gamble, AAA Oklahoma spokesperson.  “Unfortunately, drivers can become over-reliant on these technologies over time, which can lead to inattentiveness because of engagement in non-driving-related tasks or even becoming drowsy when driving with these systems engaged.”

Technology familiarity may be critical variable.

Overall, the research results found that drivers who owned their vehicles – and therefore had more familiarity with ADAS technology -- were more likely to drive distracted when these systems were active than when they were not. Meanwhile, drivers with less experience using the technologies were more likely to remain attentive and engaged while the systems were engaged.

Researchers theorize that drivers move through different phases tied to experience using ADAS.  First timers start in a novelty phase where they learn and test the technology. These drivers are less inclined to trust the system’s function and reliability, so they remain active and engaged while driving.

Eventually, drivers reach an experienced user phase, where overreliance and too much trust in the systems become more common.  These drivers are more apt to take their eyes and attention away from the road. Research in other industries have demonstrated similar patterns of over-reliance on automated systems. These behaviors can eventually lead to distraction.

“Advanced driver assistance technologies have a lot to offer in terms of comfort and safety, but they should never replace an attentive and engaged driver,” said Dr. William Van Tassel, AAA manager of driver training programs. “Remember, technology fails us daily while at work and at home. So, don’t get caught driving distracted when being focused on the road can save your life.”

The findings are a wake-up call to motorists, underscoring the need to better understand the potential pitfalls they may experience as they progress from initial use of ADAS to greater familiarity with the technology over time.

Three steps to improve safety

AAA advises that if you’re thinking about buying an ADAS-equipped car—or already own one—learn as much as possible about the technology and its limitations. AAA recommends three simple steps for how to “ACE” your next vehicle rental or purchase:

Always remain active and engaged when using ADAS technologies like lane-keep assist or adaptive cruise control.

Commit to knowing which ADAS technologies are installed on your vehicle and how they work.

Expect that the advanced driver assistance technologies in your vehicle have limitations.

“Automotive technology has tremendous promise to improve the driving experience, but it’s not infallible. There still is no substitute for an alert, engaged driver,” said Gamble.