Tag 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.

Smartphones & Rental Car: Forget Me Not

Are you leaving a shadow at the car rental?

“Please remove your personal possession from the rental car… as well as your personal data… or….forget me not!”

We are all familiar with the first part of that announcement when we drop-off a rental car, particularly if we return it to an airport location. Unless you have rented a very recent model, you may not know that your digital data could stay with the car long after you have shut the trunk, grabbed your bags, and caught your flight.

With a smaller rental car agency, you may have encountered the Bluetooth display that lists past drivers as it searches for a pairing. Bigger rental agencies may be more savvy about clearing this screen. In 2015, it came to light that pairing a smartphone to a car’s Bluetooth system could leave a digital trace.   This trace might include your phone number, call list, and even contacts, unless you took efforts to delete it.

In 2016, an English cybersecurity expert, David Ward, indicated that additional steps were needed.  In a talk at the Institute of Engineering and Technology he said, “in a hire car I paired a mobile device (…) needless to say, when it went back to the rental station, there weren’t any paired devices listed in the memory (…) but all that means is they were deleted from the list; someone that could physically get hold of that unit could probably still extract the data.”  (Note: Mr. Ward,  of MIRA,  was not specific about ‘where’ this information is stored but a later zdnet item indicates it is within the car’s infortainment system.)

More recently, both Google and Apple have announced Bluetooth type systems that are supposed to reduce the risks.  Apple CarPlay and AndroidAuto are supposed to display information from the smartphone without storing it. Cars equipped with these systems  may eliminate the current risks to your data (note: or create new ones).

Meanwhile, most rental cars do not have have these systems, and it will be a while before the technology diffuses through the fleet. As an interim measure, we can remember before we set up Bluetooth, to not sync the contacts.  It has also been suggested that we allow extra time when we return a rental car so that we remember to clear it from the Bluetooth pairing!!  The full recommendation is to do a complete factory reset of the Bluetooth (you might need to ask the rental agency to assist).  Apparently, the car’s navigation system will also need to be reset and cleared of its cookie-crumb trail.

Perhaps CarPlay and Android Auto will reduce the leakage of data, and drivers will be more assured that their information will remain private. That will also require that users trust these new systems, and possibly consider paying a monthly fee too.  One solution begets another problem, yet an even more bigger one.

The pairing of the smartphone and mobility brings ‘human sized’ challenges. The simplicity and ease of using Apple Play or Android Auto will encourage drivers and their passengers to interact with their smartphones more frequently. The developers overlook human issues: the cognitive burden of doing this is two-way, quite different from the interaction with simpler things, like a manually operated , turn knob, car radio. As our technology grows and our privacy does a reset, so does out ability to distract the driver even further.

Distracted Driving Needs a Slogan- MADD II

We don’t get in cars with drunk drivers, but why do we persist in driving with someone talking on a cell phone?

April was ‘Distracted Driving Month’ and most drivers probably encountered at least one public service ad or safety warning. While the advertising campaign is thirty days long, the problem persists throughout the year. Over a twelve month period, there will be nearly 3,500  traffic deaths, and 400,000 traffic injuries associated with distracted driving per the National Highway Traffic  Safety Administration.

The real accident rate, the underlying numbers, are much larger. It is difficult for police officers at a traffic scene to code for distraction. Unlike wearing a seatbelt or testing for alcohol use, cell phone distraction is not obvious. There is no simple way to know whether a cell phone was involved in a crash and it is difficult to obtain telco calling records. Drivers often forget, or are unwilling to talk about their phone use, and witnesses are not a good source of information.

Whatever the coding, traffic deaths are the number one public health issue and take a larger toll than we realize. One sobering statistic comes from Israel, which is positioning itself as a leader in autonomous cars: since 1948, 35,000 people have died on Israel’s roads compared with 25,000 in war and terror attacks.

While cars are getting safer,  accidents due to distracted driving are on the increase. Yet the outcry about distracted driving seems to be fading (except in April). Most people would think twice about getting in a car with someone who has been drinking, yet someone using a cell phone is more at risk. A widely quoted study in Human Factors cited that a driver talking on a cell phone is more impaired that someone with a blood alcohol level exceeding 0.08.

At least three methods have been used to control distracted driving, none of them fully successful. The first method, which might be called a countermeasure, works directly on the source, the phone. The app is able to control and halt incoming calls and text messages. The apps also turn off notifications and alerts that could distract a driver or tempt to use their phone. Most of these  apps are free, but have found few followers. Even parents of teenagers, who could track their teenager’s cell phone use in real time, seem resistant to the counter-measure.  When Auto-Shut Down apps were recommended by the former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in 2010, critics countered that the police use text when they drive, and the apps represented an over-reach of federal government.

A second approach has been public awareness campaigns, like the one in April from the National Safety Council. There is an advantage here as people can be reached where the distraction is occurring; namely in their cars. Billboards and radio seem to be an underutilized medium. Distracted driving has not received resources that have gone into publicizing similar, year-long,  in-vehicle campaigns like “Buckle Up for Safety” and “Don’t Drive and Drive”. The NHTSA has responded with the U word: “U Drive, U Text, U Pay.”

A third approach has been legislation. The key problem is that cell phone bans are hard to enforce and traffic officers seldom pull over offenders. No state outlaws all cell phone use for drivers, despite a recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board to ban texting while driving, and the placing of hands-free calls. 38 states ban all cell phone use by new drivers, and 14 states prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving. That legislation is perhaps drafted by public servants who observe their own behavior in cars, and anticipate that if it safe for them, it is safe for others.

One reason legislation lags is because people intuitively like to use their phones in cars, and they want to believe that hands free technology is safe. The counter argument, from research in cognitive science, is that cell phone conversations are detrimental to driving. Cell phone conversations keep drivers from paying full attention to the road and it also reduces their visual field. After following 100 vehicles over one year with specially equipment, researchers at the Virginia Tech Transport Institute  found that nearly eighty percent of crashes and sixty-five percent of near-crashes involved driver inattention up to three seconds before the event. Their in-car cameras recorded the source of the distraction, and, of course, it was frequently the cell phone.

There is currently a push to install hands-free phones that would eliminate the need to reach for a phone, or text while holding the steering wheel. While these intuitively seem to help, they do not reduce the cognitive burden for drivers. Vehicle dashboards with speech-recognition and  touch-screen systems distract drivers, in new and unknown ways.  It could be argued that over time, these systems will become more intuitive and drivers will get more fluent using them. In a previous blog, we compared this to the early days of car radio. An equilibrium may be reached but until then, there will be several generations of dashboard technology. Until that point, dashboard tech may cause teeth gnashing and accidents, as a humorous story in the Wall St. Journal recently noted.

Going forward, perhaps “Distracted Driving Month” will evolve into something with more staying power. “Mothers Against Drunk Driving”  might someday expand their mission to reflect the current problem, and they would not even have  to change their acronym (MADD). Meanwhile, the road to driverless cars will be filled with more distraction as drivers try to manage the intermediate dashboards.  When a fatal accident occurred in a self-driving Tesla vehicle last year, the driver was said to be in the ultimate state of distraction- watching a movie.