TCS Daily

Driven to Distraction

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - August 11, 2003 12:00 AM

"...Tuning in an automobile radio while the car is in motion involves a hazardous division of the driver's attention."

From the book, "Man and the Motorcar." 1939

What if there were a miniature camera in your car, installed somewhere around your windshield and trained on you, there behind the wheel, recording everything you did while driving your car?

Well, for a while you might think twice about, say, picking your nose. But pretty soon you'd forget the camera was there and lapse back into your usual behavior. That reversion to normal was counted on during a recent study of "driver distractions," undertaken by the AAA (American Automobile Association) and the University of North Carolina's Highway Safety Research Center.

Miniature cameras were placed in the cars of 70 Pennsylvania and North Carolina drivers for one week. These so-called "lipstick" cameras ran at all times when someone was driving the cars. Researchers eliminated the first three hours of each car's tape (they figured the drivers would know they were "on" and modify their behavior).

Then the researchers selected a random three hours from the rest of the week's tapes for each driver. These three hours were studied to see what sort of things took drivers' attention away from the road.

I know, I know. You're thinking "cell phones!" But wait. Researchers were very broad in their definition of distraction. They included everything from talking with passengers to smoking. You may have seen some of the results in the media last week. The two most common distractions according to the study were "reaching and leaning" (97 percent of drivers) and "manipulating" radio, tape or CD controls (92 percent).

Reaching and leaning is an obvious big one. The tollbooth looms and you know those quarters must be in the bottom of one of those cup holders. And that map of Florida is in the glove box, so if you unfasten your safety belt for just a second you can stretch across and fish it out. Blam!

Using a cell phone, amazingly, was way down the distraction list -- only 30 percent of drivers -- way below conversing with passengers (77 percent), eating and drinking (71 percent), and "grooming" (46 percent). Just below this last one, at a little over 44 percent, was dealing with other passengers, particularly children ("If you don't sit down, I'm coming back there!")

This study is by no means comprehensive, and analysts are already pointing to its flaws. It's a good bet, for instance, that at least some of the participants were able to change their behavior for longer than those first three hours of taping. And the cell phone figure -- only 28 of the 70 drivers were videoed on their phones while driving -- seems at variance with the anecdotal experience of just about everyone.

Some research done in Japan indicates that answering the car phone is the number one cause of driver distraction-related accidents. Researchers found that drivers have a powerful compulsion to answer their phones, no matter how fast they are driving or what kind of traffic situation they are in. They will answer the phone within 4 seconds no matter what the situation. The next two biggest accident-causing distractions according to the Japanese research were conversing on the car phone and dialing a call.

The "telematics" industry, which provides a wide range of electronic information beamed into our cars (from cell phones to e-mails and internet connections), is concerned about distractions hurting their business. They fear that state laws like New York's recent banning of hand-held phones while driving, will proliferate. So they are spending a pile of money researching driver distraction.

Ford Motor Co. has built an elaborate test rig containing a fully wired and camera festooned Taurus sedan in which it is testing driver reactions to a variety of distractions. General Motors has teamed up with the Brain Imaging Research Division at Wayne State University's medical school to literally probe the minds of distracted drivers.

According to GM, "the research will use functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans, combined with human performance data, virtual reality simulation, and transportation communications and telematics systems" to study how driver performance is affected by a variety of distractions coming in over the airwaves.

Scientists on the GM project want to see how the brain processes sight and other sensory information at the same time it is concentrating on driving a vehicle. GM has a big stake in the outcome of such research. Its OnStar system, which provides hands-free, voice activated communications between the driver and the outside world for everything from trip directions to restaurant reservations and emergency medical advice, is expected to be a money-making addition to more and more cars. Some analysts are predicting a $50 to $100 billion global market for automobile-related telematics devices by the end of this decade.

The AAA findings hold no real surprises. Driver distraction is a fact of motoring life. Motorists, auto safety experts and the automakers have been dealing with it for a century. Early cars required frequent lubrication and pumping oil or grease to some remote location on the chassis was an early driver distraction. The 1904 Autocar was one of the first makes to boast automatic lubrication.

Lighting a cigarette or cigar while "touring" was often decried as a dangerous distraction, and popular early accessories were elaborate electric lighters ready at hand for the intrepid but nicotine-starved driver. Many people worried that the advent of gauges to monitor fuel, engine temperature and battery output would unduly distract drivers.

But by far the greatest controversy about driver distraction was caused by the advent of the automobile radio. In 1922 Chevrolet announced "The Radio Sedan," a four-door car "specially equipped with a Westinghouse Two-Step Amplifying Radio Receiving Set." The car cost $860. Addition of the radio cost $200. The big, boxy radio with a tall speaker horn on top was attached to the back of the front seat. It looked like a tuba player was riding in the back seat. A large, rectangular "fence" of antenna wires covered the entire roof of the sedan.

Chevrolet reported honestly in its announcement brochure, "It is possible to hear concerts and wireless telegraphy while car is in motion, but the high tension spark of the car's distributor is an objectionable interference." The driver couldn't fiddle with the radio controls. Indeed, he needed to take a passenger along as "radio operator." The big set's numerous dials and knobs all faced to the back seat.

But, it was a start. By 1928, numerous automakers were offering a radio as an accessory. By 1930, Cadillac, Marmon, Chrysler and other makes were making cars with the wiring harness ready for a radio to be mounted under the dash. By 1934, many makes were working radio controls directly into the dashboard design.

Meanwhile, alarms were being raised. The problem, some experts contended was not just the act of operating the radio, but the broadcasts themselves. Motorists listening to Jack Benny or Eddie Cantor were going to laugh themselves into a fatal smashup. Man and the Motor Car, a high school textbook popular through the late 1930s, warned that "distraction and division of attention is certain if the program consists of talks or speeches or broadcasts of sporting events such as baseball and football games, races or prizefights."

The book observed also that "Jazz music, being stimulating, may excite some drivers to go too fast while slow music may have quite an opposite effect." But in its refreshing conclusion of the debate, the text allowed that "the radio problem is an individual responsibility."

The industry worked to make car radios ever more convenient. Push button models were introduced in 1939. After World War II, General Motors introduced its famous "wonder bar" radios, enabling the driver to tune stations with a push of the finger instead of turning a knob. Changing stations by pressing a foot button on the floor became popular as well.

Now cars carry "sound systems" that frequently take up many pages in the owner's manual to explain their operation. But experience has shown that drivers adapt quickly to the seeming complexity of these systems. In fact, the biggest distraction from a car sound system today is when you're stopped at a traffic light and the dust starts to bounce out of your floor carpets because the guy in the Camaro next to you has his rap CD cranked to the nth decibel.

Incidentally, or maybe not incidentally, I think there is a big gap in this study, at least for male drivers. Babes. How could they be missing? Pretty women are a distraction to male drivers. I think those researchers need to go back over the tapes of all male drivers in the study. I bet they'll find that a lot of eye movement they dismissed as scanning traffic or noting a road sign was really checking out a blonde in a tube top.


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