Digging into distraction

July 14, 2011
“Despite all that has been written about driver distraction, there is still a lot that we do not know. Much of the research is incomplete or contradictory. Clearly, more studies need to be done addressing both the scope of the problem and how to ...

Despite all that has been written about driver distraction, there is still a lot that we do not know. Much of the research is incomplete or contradictory. Clearly, more studies need to be done addressing both the scope of the problem and how to effectively address it.” –Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Now, in trucking circles especially, the issue of “distracted driving” remains contentious. I mean, let’s face it – truck drivers talked to each other for decades via the citizen’s band (CB) radios with nary a peep of worry from anyone about how such “in-cab communication” could distract them, raising the risks of an accident.

Then along comes the cell phone, texting capability, satellite messaging, etc., forever altering not only how people communicate with each other but where they can do it from.

And as any trucker knows from spending even a modicum of time out on the road, more and more four wheelers are choosing to do that communicating while they drive – often amplifying poor driving habits, such as rapid lane changes with no signals, tailgating, and erratic behavior.

[Interestingly enough, technology very familiar to truckers is now being deployed to help everyday motorists deal with distraction better – especially in terms of avoiding accidents. Here’s an example from Mobileye.]

Yet despite an ongoing, high profile push by the Department of Transportation to reduce “distracted driving” behaviors, a lot of questions remain about how “distraction” should be properly defined, how it affects crash risk, and what the most effective countermeasures might be.

Those are but some of the reason why the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) decided to delve deeply into this topic, recently publishing a report called Distracted Driving: What Research Shows and What States Can Do, based on a review of over 350 scientific papers published between 2000 and 2011.

"While distracted driving is an emotional issue that raises the ire of many on the road, states must take a research-based approach to addressing the problem,” explained GHSA Executive Director Barbara Harsha. “Until more research is conducted, states need to proceed thoughtfully, methodically and objectively.”

Thus the GHSA’s research report – funded by a grant from insurer State Farm, we should note – takes a multi-faceted look at the issue of “distracted driving” and comes up with some pretty interesting data. Below are but a few of the findings

First, what exactly is distracted driving? According to GHSA’s review, there are four distinct types of driver distraction:

• Visual – looking at something other than the road

• Auditory – hearing something not related to driving

• Manual – manipulating something other than the wheel

• Cognitive – thinking about something other than driving

Most distractions involve more than one of these types, with both a sensory – eyes, ears, or touch – and a mental component. For this report, GHSA determined that distraction occurs when a driver voluntarily diverts attention to something not related to driving that uses the driver’s eyes, ears, or hands.

Now, how often are drivers distracted? GHSA found driver distraction is common in both every day driving as well as in crashes. Most drivers in surveys reviewed by GHSA’s research team reported that they sometimes engaged in distracting activities. A study that observed 100 drivers continually for a full year found that drivers were distracted between one-quarter and one-half of the time. Two of the biggies:

• Cell phone use: In recent surveys, about two-thirds of all drivers reported using a cell phone while driving; about one third used a cell phone routinely. In observational studies during daylight hours in 2009, between 7% and 10% of all drivers were using a cell phone.

• Texting: In recent surveys, about one-eighth of all drivers reported texting while driving. In observational studies during daylight hours in 2009; fewer than 1% of all drivers were observed to be texting.

However, GHSA stressed that most “distracted driving” research concentrates on distractions produced by cell phones, text messaging, and other electronic devices brought into the vehicle. Other distractions that drivers choose to engage in – such as eating and drinking, personal grooming, reading, and talking to passengers – have been studied extensively by automobile manufacturers, but the group noted states have little role in addressing them.

Now, how do “distractions” affect crash risk? According to GHSA’s study, at least one driver was reported to have been distracted in 15% to 30% of crashes. The proportion of distracted drivers may be greater because investigating officers may not detect or record all distractions. However – and this is a key point here – in many crashes it is not known whether the distractions caused or contributed to the crash, GHSA’s team discerned.

How does distraction affect driver performance? Experimental studies show conclusively that distractions of all types affect performance on tasks related to driving. But those same experimental studies cannot predict what effect various distractions have on crash risk, GHSA found. Here’s what such “limited research” to date (GHSA’s own words) detail:

• Cell phone use increases crash risk to some extent but there is no consensus on the size of the increase.

• There is no conclusive evidence on whether hands-free cell phone use is less risky than hand-held use.

• Texting probably increases crash risk more than cell phone use.

• The effects of other distractions on crash risk cannot be estimated with any confidence.

Based on that limited pool of data, are there any effective “distracted driving,” countermeasures? Here’s what GHSA determined:

• Many effective roadway design and operation practices to improve safety overall, such as edge line and center line rumble strips, can warn distracted drivers or can mitigate the consequences if they leave their travel lane.

• Vehicle countermeasures to manage driver workload, warn drivers of risky situations, or monitor driver performance have the potential to improve safety for all drivers, not just drivers who may become distracted, yet their ultimate impact on distracted driving cannot be predicted.

• Countermeasures directed to the driver have concentrated on cell phones and texting through laws, communications campaigns, and company policies and programs. Systems to block or limit a driver’s cell phone calls are developing rapidly but have not yet been evaluated.

In summary, the limited research on these countermeasures concludes that:

• Laws banning hand-held cell phone use reduced use by about half when they were first implemented. Hand-held cell phone use increased subsequently but the laws appear to have had some long term effect.

• A high-visibility cell phone and texting law enforcement campaign reduced cell phone use immediately after the campaign, but longer term effects are not yet known.

• There is no evidence that cell phone or texting bans have reduced crashes.

Now, does all this mean we just chuck efforts to deal with “distracted driving” over our shoulders and forget about them? I don’t think so. What all of this tells me, though, is that solving “driver distraction” behind the wheel will take far more than a PR campaign and some gee-wiz technology to solve.

Practically, it will take a concentrated effort to shift the “driving culture” in this country, probably requiring more in-depth schooling when teenagers first get their licenses right on up through adulthood.

Based on its review existing research, GHSA has its own advice as well:

• States should continue to leverage effective, low-cost roadway countermeasures such as edge line and centerline rumble strips, which alert motorists when they are drifting out of their driving lane.

• Record distracted driving in crash reports to the extent possible, to assist in evaluating distracted driving laws and programs.

• Monitor the impact of existing hand-held cell phone bans prior to enacting new laws. States that have not already passed handheld bans should wait until more definitive research and data are available on these laws' effectiveness.

• Evaluate other distracted driving laws and programs. Evaluation will provide the information states need on which countermeasures are effective and which are not.

Any way you look at it, we’ve got a ways to go before we begin to truly make headway in efforts to reduce “distracted driving” on our roadways.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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