Are in-cab electronic gadgets compromising safety?
The issue of whether truckers can talk on their cell phones and drive at the same time is losing steam. The new question is whether drivers can talk, retrieve their e-mail, scan hundreds of satellite radio channels and check their location via global positioning satellites - and still drive safely.
Driver distraction has become a serious concern as more and more electronic gadgets are crammed into cabs. Unfortunately, there is scant research on distraction as it pertains to automobile drivers, and even less when it comes to truck drivers. The gadgets simply have infiltrated our vehicles too quickly.
The government lead is in the hands of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which has been looking at the issue of driver distraction since 1991 when problems were simpler - fiddling with the radio, noisy kids in the back seat, a few cell phones in use - but they have accelerated their interest in the past several years.
Collecting data on distraction is complicated by side issues. "It's difficult to get an absolute measure of risk because it varies with the individual, the weather, what they had on their mind other than the road and how they felt at the time," says Mike Goodman, an engineering research psychologist at NHTSA.
NHTSA officials estimate that 25% of all crashes are the result of distraction, including fatigue. Crash data isn't much help in learning about the effects of distraction because it leaves few clues. Bad brakes can be checked after a crash and high-speed skids leave marks, but distraction-related crashes leave no remnants. "In non-fatal crashes, drivers are reluctant to say they were distracted," says Goodman.
Any solution, of course, depends on solid data. To that end, this fall researchers at the University of Iowa, under the sponsorship of NHTSA, will be unveiling the National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS), purported to be the world's most advanced driving simulator. The $50-million simulator program will use all the distraction-causing devices available. "This will be a significant tool because we can let drivers be distracted until they crash," says Goodman.
One of the most important facets of the study will be to test the paradox of making devices less distracting. Here's the dilemma: If an engineer makes a device easier to use, drivers may use it more often, perhaps causing even more crashes.
The study also hopes to answer the question of how people make decisions about whether or not they choose to engage in distracting tasks. "Truck drivers are professional drivers and are more diligent in choosing not to be distracted," says Goodman. Many truckers, especially shorthaul drivers, are complaining about having too many things to do while driving, like calling in on their phones to the terminal or office.
In the short term, some local jurisdictions are implementing their own solutions. About a dozen states are considering legislation to restrict cell phone use while driving, either by banning it outright or by insisting that motorists use hands-free devices. While this may help, some studies suggest that hands-free driving only exacerbates the problem because drivers talk even more.
Hilltown Township in Pennsylvania and Brooklyn, Ohio, currently ban motorists from using hand-held phones while driving. Overseas, the Australian state of Victoria has banned cell phone usage while driving; similar measures have been enacted in Israel, Portugal, Italy, Brazil and Chile. Hand-held bans are in effect in Switzerland and Great Britain.
This month, NHTSA will hold a public meeting in Washington, D.C., on driver distraction, along with an Internet forum (www.driverdistraction.org) from July 5 to August 11. Those who can't attend the meeting can submit their studies and ideas to the overall knowledge pool and read what others have written. NHTSA also plans to release a report this summer on the distracting effects of cell phones and route guidance systems.
The goal of these reports and hearings is not to produce federal regulations, adds Goodman, but to give the best information to the states. "This is a local issue," he says.