Driver distractions

With summer officially here and school officially out, the roads will soon be full of people driving to and from the beach, the cottage and/or grandma’s house. Just in time, new research has appeared that sheds new light on how drivers can best keep their minds–and, as a result, their cars–on the road.

First, some figures. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey in the U.S. last year found that the majority of drivers engage in at least two of 12 distracting behaviors on some driving trips: 81 percent reporting talking to other passengers and 66 percent reporting changing radio stations or looking for CDs or tapes.

Nearly half reported eating or drinking while driving, while one in four reported making outgoing calls on a cell phone, taking incoming calls on a cell phone, or dealing with children riding in rear seat.

The remaining six activities surveyed included reading a map or directions while driving (12 percent), personal grooming (applying makeup, shaving–eight percent), reading printed material (four percent), responding to a beeper or pager (three percent), using wireless remote Internet access (two percent), or using devices such as in-car navigation or crash avoidance systems (two percent).

Approximately one in four of the drivers surveyed reported involvement in a motor vehicle accident in the past five years. The top distracting factor was looking for something outside of the car(a building, a street sign, etc.), which accounted for 23 percent of all crashes that could be attributed to distractions. Dealing with children or other passengers came next, then looking for something inside the car, personal thoughts, looking at an animal outside of the car and dealing with technology. Only one tenth of one percent of all drivers, or approximately .5 percent of the drivers who use a cell phone while driving, attributed a crash they’d had to cell phone use (which nevertheless translates into 292,000 crashes in the U.S. drivers attributed to cell phone use in the past five years).

A new study just released by Spanish researchers in the June issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology sheds more light on the dangers of distractions, and what kinds of distractions are most dangerous.

The researchers had six men and six women drive a Citroen test car on a thinly-traveled highway outside Madrid while the researchers created a series of distractions. They had them talk on the phone; talk to a researcher inside the car; listen to audio instructions and repeat them back; recall specific details from memory, and perform conversions in their head between euros and Spanish pesetas.

While they performed these tasks, their eye movements were monitored, and how often they scanned the road outside and looked at the speedometer or rear-view mirrors was recorded. Occasionally a spotlight was flashed into their field of vision, a signal for them to press a button near the steering wheel.

The study found that overall, distractions of any type reduced drivers’ ability to detect changes on the road by up to 30 percent. Interestingly, though, the researches found that “endogenous” behavior–things occurring inside a drivers’ mind–are just as distracting as “exogenous” behavior–i.e., talking on the phone. In other words, while taking a cell phone call while driving is dangerous, it can be equally dangerous to get lost in your own thoughts, to “zone out,” on a quiet country road.

Thoughts that require mental output, rather than simply absorbing information, are the most distracting; thoughts that require visualizing other spaces, especially if it involves motion, are also bad, because what’s being visualized may clash with the motion of the car. And any mental activity with emotional impact, such as arguing with a passenger or anxiety about an upcoming appointment, is also particularly distracting.

An attentive driver must be able to distribute his or her attention properly among the road outside, any distractions inside or outside, and his or her own thoughts, and adjust the distribution of that attention as driving conditions warrant.

In other words, when you’re driving, you should be driving–looking ahead, watching traffic, keeping an eye on road conditions, concentrating on what you’re doing, keeping a proper distance between yourself and the car in front of you, signaling your turns and lane changes, all that boring good driving stuff we learned in drivers’ ed. Concentrate on that, rather than on phone calls, eating, arguing with your spouse, or (heaven help us) shaving, and the chances are you’ll make it home in one piece from your summer drive–whether it’s short or long.

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