Driving While Distracted
By Andrea Orr, Thu Feb 15 00:00:00 GMT 2001

With mobile devices bringing more and more services to the palm of your hand, many drivers are finding it difficult to keep their eyes on the road. Ford Motor Company thinks they can help.

Driving While Distracted has been a hazard for as long as cars have been equipped with rear view mirrors that could double as make-up mirrors in a pinch. But new devices that let drivers not only talk on the go, but surf the net and even type out emails while steering with their knees, has elevated concern about drivers who take their eyes - or just their minds - off the road. One big carmaker is now spending $10 million to come up with some good data on the magnitude of the problem.

Growing importance

There are plenty of stories to support the data too. In the state of Virginia, even a highway patrol officer was caught in the path of one of these electronically-distracted drivers, who collided into the police car as the officer tried to pull him over for reckless driving.

Although that accident was not fatal, many others have been, and everyone from car manufacturers to law makers to the general driving public is looking for more information on the hazards of electronic devices on the highway. For all the studies that have attempted to quantify the problem, most of the research to date has been faulty, or at least incomplete. Researchers, for instance, often isolate cell phones as the one and only distraction available to drivers, ignoring things like car radios that have been distracting drivers for years.

If Driving While Distracted has been a road hazard for as long as commuters running late finished their grooming on the go, the number of potential distractions tempting today’s drivers seems to be compounding the problem.

"We’re very concerned, if not alarmed, about the accumulation of problems, the combination of eating fast food, applying cosmetics or shaving, and talking to your broker," says Elly Martin, a spokeswoman for the U.S. National Traffic Safety Board.

When Ford decided to take a more serious look at the problem of DWD, or Driving While Distracted, it found a dearth of good data. For one thing, after a crash occurs, it is rare that investigators look into whether there was a cell phone in use at the time, they way they may uncover a faulty tire or brake system, or even a drunk driver as the cause of a crash.

And while you can predict with some certainty that a bad tire or other defect in the car’s structure may cause a crash, it seems almost impossible to say the same about the distractions brought into the car. After all, each time a driver veers off the road while using a cell phone, many others manage to multi-task without incident.

"We need to know a great deal more," says Martin. "It may be that some people are more capable of multi-tasking than others, or that certain types of equipment are more distracting than others."

One company's effort

In an effort to find better answers about the dangers of devices in cars, Ford is building a $10 million driving simulator laboratory (called the Virtual Test Track Experiment, or Virttex) that will duplicate the highway driving experience, with and without all sorts of gadgets, so that its scientists can measure the way different distractions influence drivers. The company says one big challenge going into the study is the multitude of different distractions available to today’s drivers.

"Driver inattention can be everything from someone shaving in the car to putting on makeup, to talking on the phone, using a palm pilot or a navigation system," says Ford spokesman Said Deep. "They’ve clumped it all into the driver distraction category."

In its upcoming research, Ford hopes to develop a model that can offer a more accurate measure of how much drivers engaged in conversation, checking their stock quotes, or just seeking directions to their destination, are distracted from the main task before them. Test vehicles equipped with inside "lipstick" cameras will measure not just when crashes occur, but when they are narrowly missed. The test cars will record eye and head, as well as foot movement to track how often drivers glance around the road and check their mirrors, as well as how that behavior changes once distractions are introduced.

The test drivers will also be observed responding to sudden changes of road conditions: things like another vehicle cutting in front of them or appearing from a blind alley, the sudden appearance of a sharp curve, a mattress falling into the lane from a truck, or a pedestrian or animal entering their paths. The reactions of drivers with and without various devices will be compared.

Although Ford plans to share its finding with the whole car industry, Deep says the company’s main mission "is to make sure that whatever we put into the vehicles are safe." The company may not be able to control the use of cellular phones, laptop computers or even the old rear view mirror as makeup mirror. But like most carmakers, Ford is building more and more of its cars with on-board navigation systems. For all the assistance these systems have provided in getting drivers to a desired location, they have also been identified as a potentially hazardous distraction, especially among elderly drivers.

So, are all electronic devices created equal? Perhaps not.

One big question Ford hopes to answer in its study is whether voice-activated technology is safer.

It might seem like a no-brainer that a cell phone that lets you say the name of the person you are calling and then automatically connects you is safer than one that requires you take your eyes of the road and your hand off the wheel to dial. Think of all the voice-activated products and services that have been developed based on that premise. Yet research to date has found nothing to suggest that hands-free technology is indeed safer.

"The intuitive belief is that if it’s hands-free, or voice-activated, it is safe, but we haven’t seen any proof of that," says one source who asks not to be named but is actively involved in driver distraction research. "The research we have seen is showing that is not true at all."

So far, the National Traffic Safety Board seems to agree.

"Our studies seem to show that cognitive distraction can be more significant than visual distraction," explains the NTSB’s Martin. NTSB also believes that even when no hands are involved, conversations on cellular phones are significantly more distracting than conversations with passengers.

"When you’re talking to a passenger, it is just not as provocative intellectually," she says.

From Silicon Valley, Andrea Orr covers developments in the mobile world for TheFeature. She is also a correspondent for Reuters in the Palo Alto, California, bureau.