Defining Driver Distraction Then And Now

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Driver distractions typically used to fall into one of four categories, being a visual, biomechanical, auditory or cognitive distraction type.

A visual distraction could be anything from a funny looking animal crossing the road, to a sexy billboard advert. A biomechanical distraction can occur whilst reaching into your passenger’s footwell for a tasty snack. Auditory distractions are well known to anyone driving with kids or animals in the car, and cognitive distractions can strike at anytime and in any form, ranging from simple daydreaming all the way up to sleep-deprived hallucinations.

As someone who used to drive over 100 miles each day to work, I did a lot of daydreaming and snacking in my white (with turquoise trim) 1991 Nissan Micra “Chic”.

A Mk I Nissan Micra in its natural habitat.

A Mk I Nissan Micra in its natural habitat.

On one occasion, I was driving in slow traffic when I noticed another Micra “Chic”, with the exact same paint job as mine, had smashed into the back of another car at the side of the road.

The visual distraction of seeing an accident at the side of the road combined with the cognitive distraction caused by me dwelling on the coincidence of another grown man driving a Nissan Chic, could have only resulted in one outcome. As I turned my attention back to the road directly ahead, I felt the impact of the car in front which had now become stationary at traffic lights whilst I had been daydreaming.

No doubt many laughs were had at the sight of two exactly identical, slightly effeminate Nissans smashed within 10 metres of each other. If only I had installed some kind of radar to my front bumper, to alert me of slowing traffic ahead…things could have been different.

Or would they?

Do these devices actually add to the safety of the driver and passengers, or do the flashing screens, notification sounds and tinny voices add a whole new level of distraction?

RoSPA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) has released an information leaflet entitled “Driver Distraction” which brings statistics from a range of studies showing the effects of distraction on road safety.

The first study quoted by RoSPA, is the largest study of driver behavior analysis ever conducted. The 100-Car Naturalistic Study monitored driving behavior for 241 drivers over a period of 12-13 months, and concluded that 78% of the 82 recorded crashes had some form of distraction as a contributing factor.

An Australian study quoted by RoSPA, concluded that based on film footage of their test subjects driving, 100% of subjects participated in at least one distracting activity, and that a sobering 14.5% of all driving time was spent distracted with an average of one distraction occurring every 6 minutes.

Some TomToms are more distracting than others.

Some TomToms are more distracting than others.

More specific to the field of telematics, a study by Which? revealed that more than 7 out of 10 drivers found that interacting with satnavs and phones had distracted them from driving. The study also showed that company car drivers were the worst offenders with 51% having admitted to messing around with a satnav whilst driving, compared to just 21% of private car owners.

Conversely, and perhaps not surprisingly, a spokesman for TomTom has spoken against the claims stating that their own independent tests carried out by Dutch organization TNO on behalf of TomTom shows that “driving with a dedicated navigation device improves driver concentration and focus”, and added that “TNO found that driving with a navigation device had a positive impact on driver awareness, reduced driver stress and workload, and had a positive effect on driver behaviour in general.”

Whichever evidence you look at (except TomTom’s), you will see that connected devices cause distractions, and not just one or two distraction types, but potentially all four at exactly the same time. This is the beauty of multimedia-capable devices: they can annoy a driver in multiple ways.

So how do we keep our eyes and minds on the road in the midst of information overload?

There are three possible scenarios.

1)      Ignore the problem, and hope it goes away

2)      Legislate

3)      Issue guidelines for drivers and manufacturers

Clearly the problem is going to grow, so ignoring it is not an option.

In terms of legislation, there are many countries in the world that already have legal penalties for use of devices whilst driving.

For example, it is illegal to operate a vehicle in the UK whilst holding a communications device…unless it is a two-way radio or satnav, then everything is fine. That is unless you kill somebody– the courts still frown upon that, and will not accept that your device has any liability if you are behind the wheel. In Georgia, USA, it is legal to input into a satellite navigation device whilst driving, but ILLEGAL to input into a device running Google Maps.

Google Glass wearers have come under fire in the US recently after one driver got away with driving whilst wearing the terminally-hip face-mounted computer. As a result, 7 states are now looking to ban wearable devices whilst in control of a vehicle.

As Wyoming Senator Floyd Esquibel points out, “Too often the law is years behind technology and we have to catch up. So with this maybe we wouldn’t be too far behind.”

So using a handheld radio is fine, but holding a phone is illegal…inputting a destination into a TomTom stuck to your windshield is fine, put using Google Maps isn’t… one thing seems clear: the legislators need to better define what you can and can’t do with specific devices, or else make one rule for all devices. It is a question of distraction after all, and in terms of distraction it makes absolutely no difference if your device is emitting a 3G signal, or not. It seems that these laws have been arbitrarily assigned based on the devices ability to emit certain types of electromagnetic wave, most of which are invisible and cause no distraction!

So while the lawmakers are stumbling around in the dark, maybe a little bit of common sense would shed some light on the subject.

The 2013 US budget included an allotment of $330 million USD, to be spent over a period of 6 years with the aim of increasing awareness of driver distraction, via studies and guidelines.

One such set of guidelines, created by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and aimed at manufacturers, suggests that all devices should strive to achieve the following:

  • To reduce the complexity and task length required by the device
  • To limit device operation to one hand only (leaving the other hand to remain on the steering wheel to control the vehicle)
  • To limit individual off-road glances required for device operation to no more than two seconds in duration
  • To limit unnecessary visual information in the driver’s field of view
  • To limit the amount of manual inputs required for device operation.

RoSPA have issued guidelines aimed at the drivers themselves, informing them how to better deal with distraction in general. These guidelines state:

  • If you need to do something distracting, find a safe place to pull over
  • Recognize what makes you distracted (use self-awareness to modify behavior).
  • Concentrate on your driving (realize when you are daydreaming, and stop it).
  • Use technology sensibly (reduce the amount of devices in the vehicle. Remove your USB powered lava lamp from the dashboard).
  • Take refresher or further driver training.

Conclusively, based on the massive amount of funding that the US government is pumping into driver distraction schemes, and based on the sheer amount of studies being conducted, it is safe to say that the growing problem of telematics-based distraction is indeed being taken seriously.

As with all new technologies however, there is a large gulf in between the time a new technology hits consumers and the time it takes for the law to even notice the impact of said devices.

With the market of wearable technology expanding at a ludicrous rate, it is clear that legislators are going to have lay down some pretty firm definitions of what constitutes a distraction, and what does not. It is utterly ridiculous to suggest that talking into a two-way radio is any different than talking into a phone.

Not distracting at all.

Not distracting at all.

Ultimately, in both cases the driver is just speaking into a piece of plastic- the only difference is the wavelength on which the device is transmitting. Of course, in both situations, the one commonality is the act of speaking itself. It may be that the simplest and most broad solution would be to ban any physical interaction between the driver and their devices, regardless of whether it is a TomTom, a phone running Google Maps, a two-way radio or that 8-track copy of Deep Purple’s “Made in Japan”.

Technology evolves, and we can deal with that in one of two ways. We can arbitrarily legislate against some devices, and not against others (Two-way radio vs mobile phones), or we can treat every distraction for what it is, and issue a blanket ban on any physical interactions, leaving only voice controlled applications as an acceptable interface. What other option is there?

Further studies on distracted driving can be found at the following link from the NHTSA.

Photos courtesy of Yamaha Music, Universal Pictures, bausandthedeep and Nissan-EU.

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Phillip Keane

Phillip is an aerospace engineer and a writer, with an unhealthy obsession with human and robotic spaceflight.