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Driven to distraction

By / 9 years ago / Features / No Comments

According to the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM), between 2006 and 2010 distraction from mobile phones was a contributory factor in 1,690 road accidents which resulted in injuries; this figure includes 110 fatal accidents, and even that figure is likely to be under-reported it believes. 

The IAM did some research of users of smartphones using social networking on a simulator. When using Facebook, participants spent between 40% and 60% of their time looking down while using a smartphone to write or read messages, compared with about 10% of the time looking down normally.

Reaction times to visual and auditory stimuli were found to increase by approximately 37.6% when using a smartphone to send and receive messages on Facebook, and participants often missed events completely.

Candice Walters, general manager of Hitachi Capital’s Driving Instructor Centre explains the cognitive dangers of using the internet and its social network adjuncts:  Using a mobile device involves the same portions of the brain that process the information needed to identify road hazards, and thus greatly increases the risk of a serious road accident.

‘Drivers must be shocked into realising that a few moments on Facebook or Twitter can result in death and serious injury for themselves and others.’

The issue of driver distraction through the use of technology has been around for while. In 2006, a study distributed by the US Department of Transportation (DOT), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that the leading factor in most crashes and near crashes (80% of crashes and 65% of near-crashes) is driver inattention within three seconds before the event.

A simulation study conducted by Australia’s Monash University’s Accident Research Centre, one of the foremost research institutions on driver distraction, concluded: ‘Retrieving and, in particular, sending text messages has a detrimental effect on a number of safety critical driving measures, such as the ability to maintain lateral position, detect hazards, and to detect and respond appropriately to traffic signs.’

But distraction is not solely confined to mobile phones. For drivers who spend a lot of time in the car, adhering to the old cliché of the “mobile office”, there are plenty of other factors to consider. While mobile phones are the most familiar form of distraction, the NHTSA study found that drivers were nine times more at risk of a crash or near-crash while reaching for a moving object and 3.7 times more at risk when looking at an external object. Reading something while driving makes drivers three times more likely to crash.

While it may not be a leader in vehicle quality and engineering, the USA is far ahead when it comes to the electronic systems in cars, and the NHTSA already has proposals in place to reduce the amount of inputs required to operate a device – essentially the number of buttons to push – and reduce unnecessary visual information.

There are also guidelines requiring one-handed operation and a two second limit on “off-road glances” – the time spent looking at the device.

The NHTSA also wants built-in gadgets the driver can use to turn-off non-essential functions while the car is moving, and keep them disabled until the car is parked.

In particular they want to prevent manual texting, use of the internet/social media, entering addresses into sat navs and dialling long phone numbers.

Displaying more than 30 characters of text not related to driving should also be prevented, it says.

The problem is that we are becoming ever more wedded to mobile devices to run our business lives. A study by market research firm iSuppli suggests that smartphones have already become the most important platform for maps, navigation and other location-based services (LBS). According to the study, the number of smartphone-based navigation systems is increasing to 81 million in 2010, and expected to rise to 297 million by 2014.

There is no doubt though, that cars, and the people in them, are going to be subjected to ever-higher levels of information.

In this year’s KPMG Automotive Report, Steven Bridgeland, senior product manager for Microsoft’s Windows Embedded Business, explained how technology will make driving a more “connected” experience than ever.

He said: ’Through our other recently announced partnership with Toyota, we’re planning to take connectivity to a whole new level by harnessing the power of cloud computing.

‘The cloud enables us to store the enormous amount of data collected in the car in an easily accessible place, and in the future, Toyota customers around the world will enjoy the benefits of advanced and affordable next-generation, cloud-based telematics.

‘Advancements in automotive intelligent systems will bring higher safety levels (car-to-car), optimised traffic management (car-to-infrastructure) and even remote analyses of mechanical problems of whole model lines, warning a driver of the need for a service before they experience a failure in their car (car-to-OEM).

‘Connectivity will also enhance the everyday driving experience and even the productivity of those in the car, whether they want to work, communicate with others or just be entertained, with infinite possibilities including a host of voice-activated services such as phone and email, all while prioritising safety.’

But can you trust drivers not to give in to their inquisitive side and reach for their phone when it bleeps or flashes at them? And of course, distraction can be contextual: programming the sat nav on the empty stretch of a three lane motorway is inherently less risky that trying to spell out Auchtermuchty in the middle of a high speed dual carriageway rush hour.

So technology firms are looking at making their systems work in a contextual way.

Most smartphones and other devices are equipped with different kind of sensors and GPS receivers; this information could be combined with data obtained from vehicle onboard units and driver assistance systems, or with traffic updates received from external service providers or traffic police.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, an organisation which looks at future technology needs, based on parameters such as the car’s velocity, location, density of traffic or even driving style (e.g., aggressive or defensive, anticipatory) and driver’s experience (e.g., beginner) the in-vehicle information and communication system could decide and enable/disable, which, if any, feature is safe enough to be used in this situation.

As an example, a mobile phone may allow a hands-free call when driving on a motorway outside the city, but prohibit a call in hectic traffic situations, and temporarily suspend the call when turning (with a message to the other end – call temporarily suspended for driving conditions) or not allow a ring when overtaking (message on the other end – please wait for driving conditions).

In some ways, it sounds like a recipe for even more distraction – to be halted by your car in the middle of an important call because it judges you not to be sufficiently skilled is likely to send most people into apoplexy.

And of course, from a technical perspective it would need well-defined and standardised interfaces between vehicle systems and all kinds of ICT devices used in vehicles, and working out the parameters in which these systems kick in could be complex, as well as controversial.

One thing is for certain though: drivers are going to get bombarded with ever more information. The question is, how do you help them deal with it?

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Steve Moody

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