distracted driving
Study participant wearing EEG cap in test vehicle (AAA)

The American Automobile Association (AAA) and the University of Utah recently conducted a study on distracted driving. The study focused on the mental workload and reaction times for a driver performing various tasks not related to driving while behind the wheel.

The study concluded that “dangerous mental distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road,” says AAA. User interfaces such as hands-free, voice-to-text systems may not require drivers to divert their eyes from the road, but they must still divert their attention from the task of driving. “The research found that as mental workload and distractions increase reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues, potentially resulting in drivers not seeing items right in front of them including stop signs and pedestrians.”

At a press conference yesterday, AAA State Relations Director Justin McNaull said that “people are putting themselves in danger without necessarily realizing it.”

For the study, participants engaged in activities with increasing mental workload. These included baseline driving with no distractions as a control, listening to the radio, listening to a book on tape, talking with a passenger, talking on a hands-free mobile device, talking on a hand-held mobile device, interacting with a voice-to-text interface and solving basic math problems and memorizing words.

Participants performed each of these activities in three surroundings: sitting in front of a screen that showed a graphic known as a static fixation cross, using a driving simulator, and actually driving a vehicle down a city street. Throughout the experiment, participant brain wave activity was monitored using an electroencephalographic (EEG) skull cap.

Study participants also performed a detection response task (DRT) throughout the experiment. A small light mounted in their peripheral line-of-sight blinked either red or green. Participants were told to ignore the red light and tap the steering wheel with a finger when they saw the green light.

distracted driving

The results of the study show that as participants’ mental workloads increased, their reaction times slowed and the number of incorrect responses to the DRT increased. It also showed that as mental workloads increased, participants were searching for other dangers less often, meaning they developed a tunnel vision and were less aware of their surroundings. In the real world, this would equate to not noticing a red traffic light or not seeing a pedestrian crossing the street.

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety President and CEO Peter Kissinger says that the results of the study “reinforce previous research that hands-free is not risk-free.”

One of the goals of this study, according to McNaull, is to increase public awareness to the notion that hands-free devices are still very distracting. Ideally, he said he’d like to see automakers and mobile electronics companies collaborate to create solutions that can be convenient but are also safer and less distracting.

Comprehensive in-vehicle infotaiment systems such as Ford’s SYNC system and Kia’s UVO system are becoming increasingly prevalent in new vehicles. USA Today reports that the number of infotainment systems equipped in vehicles is estimated to rise from 9 million this year to 62 million by 2018.

What do you think will help drivers stay focused behind the wheel?

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