Oct 22 2015

Even Voice Operated Devices Cause Distracted Driving

We are in an awkward stage of technology at the moment. We have a plethora of electronic devices that we can use while driving, yet the computer technology to help us drive is not quite ready (although we are on the cusp). We may be living is a period of maximum distracted driving, with entertainment systems, now infotainment, GPS, cell phones, and complex environmental and other control to operate the car itself.

A new study shows that the problem is perhaps worse than most people realize. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Every control that a driver can operate distracts their attention from the road. This is because we have limited attention and cognitive resources. Obviously taking one’s eyes away from the road to look at controls is bad, but even without visual distraction, cognitive load is a problem.

Paying constant attention requires a lot of cognitive processing. When that processing is used for something else, there is less available for the task of driving. If you think you are particularly good at multitasking (doing two things at once) you’re not, and you may even be worse than average.

Using your hands to operate controls seems like it would be a significant part of the problem, but it is probably very minor. Driving a car is not manually challenging, it just takes constant attention.

The new study from the University of Utah tests drivers while using a variety of devices. The drivers in the test must pay attention to a light that will show up intermittently in their peripheral vision and indicate when the light is on. Previous studies by this team, using a 5 point distraction rating, found that using a cell phone has a distraction rating of 2.5 while using a hands-free phone caused a distraction of 2.3. This is not a significant difference. This result shows that it is primarily not the use of the hands that is the problem but the call itself. For reference, just listening to the radio had a distraction rating of 1.2.

In the newer studies they tested voice-activated personal assistants. These ranged from 2.4 to 4.6. These are all hands-free voice-activated systems. Further, they found that the distraction lingered for up to 27 seconds after the task had been completed.

These results are all consistent with the hypothesis that it is cognitive load that is the main problem with distracted driving. Cognitive load increases the more difficult a system is to use. Further, having to pay close attention to a call or personal assistant to hear them well enough to understand what they are saying also increases cognitive load.

The immediate solution to all this, for the individual driver, is to simply minimize the use of any electronic device while driving. When someone else is in the car with you, let them manage every device. When you are alone, listen to the radio but don’t try to engage with any other device.

The tricky one for me is GPS, which needs to be used while you are in the car. When you do need to interact with electronics while driving, be extra careful. Take a moment to evaluate your situation, slow down, and make an effort to maintain as much attention to driving as possible.

Another solution, however, is for any company manufacturing any device that can or should be used in a car needs to pay particular attention to ease of use. I am a big advocate of designing user interfaces to minimize cognitive load. Controls should be obvious, intuitive, and as simple as possible. Audible feedback should be loud, clear, and obvious.

Car manufacturers also need to keep the cabin quiet, as road noise will make it more difficult to use devices and increase cognitive load. They also need to design controls to be as simple and intuitive as possible.

Long term, however, it is likely that technology will save us from the problem it has created. There already exists driver assistance technology, like collision avoidance systems. Computers are much better than humans at paying constant attention and not being distracted. Systems exist to detect upcoming collisions, warn the driver, and even automatically apply the brakes if necessary.

Of course, we also already have the ultimate expression of this technology, self-driving cars. They are still in the experimental phase, however, but are getting very close to the point where they can be commercially implemented.

Distracted driving may therefore cease to be a problem in 10-20 years. For now we are living in the time of maximal distraction.

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