Category Archives: distracted driving

Driving is Where Your Head Is

CAN YOU SPOT THE IPAD IN THIS PICTURE?

 

Driving is not about where your car is… it is where your head is.  But, drivers ignore the evidence and buy into an optical illusion when it comes to smartphones.

We can’t find the ipad, which is in plain site (see image) because it blends seamlessly into the upholstery.  Hands-free smartphones encourage a different optical illusion when it comes to safety and mobility. While the phone makes drive time more enjoyable it also masks the cognitive load brought to the driving task.

COGNITIVE DISTRACTION

Cognitive distraction is not a household phrase but it should get more attention in April during “Distracted Driving Awareness Month.”  This annual campaign reminds us that there are nearly 3,500 deaths  and 391,000 traffic injuries each year. These numbers  include all sources of driver distraction, not just phones.  In the past, The National Safety Council (NSC) has estimated that one in four traffic accidents is caused by texting.

It is hard to see cognitive distractions, but optical illusions help us describe it. Like the silver ipad in the image, it is visible, yet overlooked. Drivers cannot imagine the dangers of holding a phone conversation. Their bias, or misbelief, is that they can multi-task and drive safe with hands-free smartphones.  

ALL DISTRACTION IS NOT EQUAL

Some background: There are three identified sources of smartphone distraction in vehicles: the first two are obvious: manual distraction, like reaching for a smartphone or texting with it, and visual distraction, gazing at the keyboard or text, instead of the road.  Drivers rationalize that they are compliant and safe if they keep their hands on the steering wheel, and their eyes planted on the road.

Cognitive distraction is the third source of distraction. Put simply, it is the mental workload associated with a task that involves thinking about something other than the driving task . Driving safely requires more than keeping the vehicle straight within two parallel lines.  Put another way, driving safely it is not where your hands are, but where your brain is.

There is a lot of listening we do in our cars, and for the most part we do it safely. We attend to horns, and sirens outside the car…and even to the GPS on our phones, which speaks turn by turn directions. We also converse with passengers. These exchanges seldom result in ‘distraction’ from the road. Should traffic conditions deteriorate outside the windshield, most passengers, with some rare exceptions, will modulate the change. The feedback can be an outright warning, a small gap in conversation or a subtle change in pitch or tone. In any case, the driver gets alerted.

HANDS-FREE IS DIFFERENT

This is dissimilar to a hands-free conversation on a smartphone. The virtual communicator is far-away and has no knowledge of the road conditions. He/she is not able to alert the driver, slow down, or cease the conversation should road conditions suddenly change.

But, it gets more serious. Drivers on a smartphone seldom inform the virtual party at the other end that they are calling from a car. There is an unwritten rule of etiquette to stay connected, even when the traffic conditions get snarly. If drivers get deeply “wrapped up” in a conversation, their concentration can go awry. A conversation trigger may be an emotional topic, or one deeply rooted in disagreement or debate. Whatever, it tends to floods the driver’s other point of concentration, which should be the driving task.

Cognitive distraction is an everyday occurrence: busy parents call from their car and try to discipline recalcitrant teens, multi-faceted business deals sour over the phone, and political disagreements turn vitriolic.

When drivers acquire hands-free phones, they want to brush away the risk. Existing laws do not help, because they primarily regulate manual distraction and visual distraction, specifically holding a smartphone or texting and driving. There is no law that prohibits using hands-free smartphones, except among teens and novice drivers.  Cognitive Distraction is the optical illusion that we ignore at, our own risk.

TUNNEL VISION AND TUNNEL REACTIONS

The driver who talks… …but has his mind elsewhere faces trouble: first, he/she is more likely to “visually tunnel”- he tunes out more signs and signals in the environment; it might be as straightforward as missing speed-limit signage, or as deadly as blowing through a traffic signal.

Second, the distracted driver has a slower reaction time. Researcher David Strayer, at the University of Utah, finds, at the maximum, that a driver traveling only 25 mph continues to be distracted for up to 27 second after disconnecting from a highly distracting phone call or a car-voice command system. The vehicle would cover the length of three football fields before the driver regained full attention.

We should note that the majority of Strayer’s work measures the mental distraction caused by in-car information systems that are operated by voice commands. The mental distraction from an intense, emotional conversation becomes even more difficult to enumerate.

BEYOND APRIL….

It is human nature to talk and to drive… we have, collectively, been chatting for nearly 100 years old, since the beginning of motoring.  However, it a relatively new capability to drive, and to talk virtually. The differences are that we converse with someone who is not present and we are not stationary. This is an entirely new phenomenon with unmeasured risk. We tell ourselves that it is natural, but like the optical illusion, hands-free smartphones warrant a second look during “National Distracted Driving Month” and beyond.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Driver Distraction

“Amusing Ourselves to Death” is the visionary title of a book by former NYU Professor and media guru, Neil Postman. Postman was writing about film and TV, not about traffic fatalities.  He could not have imagined that  “Amusing Ourselves to Death” would be a literal title that described our roadways. It is just beginning.

The road to autonomous cars will have more casualties, as we clamor for entertainment, and demand to travel with smartphones and voice assistants.  BMW and Mini are about to introduce the Alexa to automobiles.  Cadillac and Audi will sell vehicles with Stage 2 or 3 hands-free driving.  In the not so distant future, companies might pay to send in-vehicle ads and promotions to drivers, based on knowledge of the destination. Drivers may welcome this if the ads offset their travel cost, similar to the business model used by over-the-air TV. There is synergy between cars, phones, and messages.

The synergy is easy to understand.  Within the closed confines of a car, conversation fills the space. It can seem as natural to talk with someone over the phone, as it feels to chat with the passenger sitting beside us, or in the back seat. Drivers don’t make a distinction between remote conversations and the ones they have with passengers, even though the cognitive processing skills differ. More obviously, they know that passengers react to the road…they pause, they modulate their tone of voice, and sometimes they even cry out, should they observe slowing traffic or dangerous road conditions. Passengers provide both verbal and non-verbal traffic cues, and that makes driving with a passenger safer than speaking with someone remotely, at the other end of the smartphone.

Drivers have a hard time grasping that driving and dialing are conflicting tasks. Hands free /bluetooth communications makes drivers feel safe, since they keep their hands on the wheel. They do not recognize that hands-free is not cognitive free: there is a split second shifting of focus between the conversation and the road. Most of the time, if drivers are experienced with both the road and their phones, simple, basic verbal exchanges (yes/no/when) do not seem to cause accidents. However, this assumption will be tested further as Amazon introduces its Alexa voice assistant into 2018 BMW cars and minis.  

It is noteworthy that while the diffusion of Bluetooth devices has increased and new cars have gained many more factory-installed safety features, there has still been an uptick in traffic fatalities. Between 2014 and 2016 there was a 14% increase in traffic deaths. The cause is not clear, but a common attribution is that one in four fatalities is linked to the phone.

We are now moving from an era with hands-on-the-wheel to one where messaging will be more omnipresent. Recall that the first traffic death in an autonomous vehicle occurred when a Tesla driver traveled at high speed, watching a movie. The driver failed to respond, although it was estimated, ex post, that he had 10 seconds to take back the wheel before colliding with a truck that crossed his path.

A new generation of cars, the 2018 Cadillac CT6 sedan, allow the driver to be in semi-autonomous mode, but with eyes on the road. An eye-tracking camera is mounted to the dashboard. A different system from Audi goes one step further and allows the driver to take their eyes off the road if the vehicle is on a divided road with traffic speeds under 40 mph.  Audi touts (per the WSJ)  the advantages:  “drivers can turn their attention to  “things like “ answer their email, write text messages.. or plan for their vacation.”

Spoiler: The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board)  is reviewing the self-driving Audi and has not decided if the car is road-ready.

Whether the Cadillac or the Audi models succeed, drivers continue to sit forward  and face the windshield. To escape boredom, these drivers will surely spend more time on their smartphones. Spending more smartphone time will also justify their productivity; they can take the office with them as they travel.

In the short run, smartphones will rule. We should not expect strong legislation and public education, like the kind that greatly reduced traffic fatalities from drinking and driving. Policy makers, perhaps early adopters themselves, will be reluctant to regulate hands-free.

The NTSB may still weigh in, but owners of semi-autonomous cars will be setting a new trend. They will introduce  brand new entertainment systems to vehicles, and speed up the frequency and rate of smartphone use. If drivers are more connected and less aware, their remote vehicles will need to be more responsive. Of course, current vehicles are still in beta testing so some drivers will unwittingly amuse themselves to death. Meanwhile, other connected devices like the Alexa, will make driving less tedious but they still lack the eyes and ears of a fellow passenger.

It Takes An Island: Hawaii & Smartphone Distraction

Pedestrian Safety Month
HDOT- 2017

It takes an island to do something about transport and smartphone distraction.

Visitors to Hawaii often take home a colorful shirt or bikini, a lei, or macadamia nuts. Now, however, they can come home with some lessons on smartphones, traffic safety, and multi-modal planning. The island of Oahu is moving forward with  initiatives that will encourage alternative modes of transportation. The first program gives some weight to an issue that National Safety Council advertises every April, but wishes that the public pay attention to all year: distracted driving. With a tropical twist, Honolulu will become the first city to ban walking with a cell phone. The motto for the program is “Don’t Walk and Cross.”  

The initiative prohibits pedestrians from using cell phones and other electronic devices when they are crossing a street. The initial fines are relatively minor, between $15 and $35, with a potential cap of $99. The Councilman who sponsored the bill observed that Hawaii is ranked 13th in pedestrian deaths. Additionally, the Honolulu police supported the legislation.

In public testimony, a high school teacher noted that “students are putting themselves at a high risk for potential injuries because they are being distracted by their devices,” and a young student from Waipahu High School  endorsed the bill because, “using a cellphone while crossing the street is just as dangerous as using a cellphone while driving… the (bill) builds awareness and educates others…” Opponents of the bill wanted to spend public funds on  infrastructure improvements instead and called the bill a government overreach. In their view, motorists should be regulated, not pedestrians.

The second program on Oahu is a bike share. Tourists and residents can now check out 1000 Biki bikes distributed over 100 locations. The cost is just $3.50 per hour or $20.00 for 5 hours. Advocates claim these bikes will cut down on congestion. Critics, on the other hand, argue that the rental bikes could worsen traffic as inexperienced riders share the road with buses, tourist trolleys, cars, mopeds, other bikers, and of course, pedestrians.  

It is unknown whether the smartphone legislation grew in tandem with the biking initiative. The legislation that prohibits smartphone use has a sister clause for vehicles: motorists, including bikers, are prohibited from using handheld phones during their trip (except for GPS), as well as from wearing headphones or other electronics. So, pedestrians  and bikers now have an important role in shifting public opinion on texting and driving. If they are serious about pedestrian safety, Hawaii could also take an island-wide approach to outlaw right on red turns, reduce vehicle speed limits, and increase the length of ped-crossing intervals.

Perhaps the pedestrian cell phone use ban in Honolulu will start a movement. If locals and tourists feel safer and it proves to reduce accidents, the concept will spread. The new legislation may remind smartphone users at large that they need to pay attention to their immediate environment, whether they are on foot or behind the wheel. It is important to note that distracted driving in Hawaii is a considerable offense. Unlike other states, Hawaii takes a tough stance: it bans texting and hand held phones. However, like the mainland, it has yet to prohibit the use of hands-free smartphones in cars. There seems to be a legislative resistance everywhere to the statistical evidence that hands free-devices are dangerous in vehicles.

It will be interesting to see how Honolulu chooses to roll out the smartphone ban that begins on October 25th. Will they publicize the new legislation widely, and make people aware of it through a soft-sell approach, perhaps a parody on “enjoy Oahu, hand in hand, not hand on phone”.  The statewide poster (see image) from Pedestrian Safety Month and the Girl Scouts gives some indication that a soft-sell approach can be successful. Alternatively, Hawaii could promote the new law with a campaign that focuses on the health-risks, akin to anti-smoking messages from the American Cancer Society. Initiating the message at school crossings may be the first priority.

As the program gains momentum, pedestrians need to believe that Honolulu is strict on safety for all transportation modes, not just singling out lowly walkers. Tourists will surely be surprised if they end up with an official warning, or perhaps a small fine, as they stroll Honolulu. These smartphone wielding tourists might learn a new lesson and carry it with them back to the mainland along with their other souvenirs.