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In addition to looking cool, the display is intended to improve driver safety with collision warnings placed right where you can’t miss them. But in a study published in June 2015 in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers at the University of Toronto discovered the display may actually make driving less safe because the digital messages they transmit might divide your focus.
The displays date back to 1950s fighter jets, where the technology allowed pilots to focus on targets without having to look away from their control panels.
As HUDs grow in popularity, we have to wonder, Do we really need more distractions in the car? You can control your Bluetooth-enabled phone using your steering wheel and cues from the display panel. You may already find your attention divided by a GPS screen, a screen showing you how to back up safely and even a screen alerting you to incoming emails while you're driving. Surely that's already too many.
Researchers found that adding a screen to the windshield can confuse drivers and impair their ability to sort through the visual messages in front of them. In one of two experiments simulating the HUD, study participants were asked to report on how many spots flashed on the screen, from one to nine. Some were then presented with an extra, randomly appearing visual: a black-outlined square. It would be the equivalent of a collision alert or some other message that could pop up at any time while driving.
Accuracy in reporting the number of spots was high when there was no square in the subjects’ field of vision. When the square appeared and the number of spots was low, the square was missed about one in 15 times. When the number of spots increased, that rate climbed to one in 10 instances.
In other words, the more information there was on the screen, the less likely a driver would be to pick out the less prominent details.
"It would be necessary to distinguish, for example, between warnings of a collision and a recommendation to make a turn," says psychology professor Ian Spence, who led the study, in a press release. "Otherwise, competing warnings may be more dangerous than no warning at all."
Something to consider the next time you’re shopping for a car.
Read for more about green driving tips and safe driving reminders.