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Perplexing Problems in Distracted Driving Research

We all know that distracted driving is dangerous. One popular (and extremely hard to source) “fact” often attributed to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is that “texting and driving is six times more dangerous than drunk driving.”

And even if that isn’t an actual demonstrable fact, it certainly feels right. Many U.S. agencies estimate distracted driving accounts for 10% to 15% of all traffic accidents. The NHTSA has found that 9% of traffic fatalities and 15% of accidents are caused by distracted driving.

But that may be a vast underestimate. Some driving research has found that drivers using “safer” technology (such as talking on the phone using a hands-free option) still miss 40% to 50% of what’s occurring outside the vehicle. According to the National Safety Council, the cognitive distraction that comes with engaging in a cell phone conversation while driving is so profound that “drivers … can overlook up to 50% of what’s occurring around while looking out the windshield.” They found that activity in the visual processing regions of the brain “is reduced by up to a third when talking or listening to the phone while driving.” Another large study in 2020 interviewed almost 10,000 crash survivors between the ages of 18 and 34. Of these individuals—all of whom had been involved in accidents—a full 74% cited distracted driving as the primary cause of their crash.

 

Driving Research Using Simulation to Understand the Human Factors 

But distracted driving research can prove deeply perplexing. In 2019, Helen Loeb, Aditya Belwadi, Jalaj Maheshwari, and Saniyah Shaikh were using immersive driving simulation to look at how age and gender correlate to a driver’s ability to take over for an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) when the automated vehicle fails to recognize a hazard. Although their study was not focused on driver distraction, they inadvertently found “participants who were cognitively distracted during the drive performed better than the drivers who were not.” The researchers hypothesize that something about the distracting task “kept drivers awake and more prone to pay attention.” Meanwhile, their peers, despite not being formally distracted, drifted off into their own thoughts and failed to react to an emergency.

It is surprising discoveries like these that foreground the importance of the human-machine interface as companies continue to rapidly develop and deploy new driving technology.