September 22, 2011


Toyota takes on the myth of the above-average driver (Alex Taylor III, 9/22/11,FortuneMagazine)

The research being coordinated by Toyota in North America highlights two problem populations -- newly licensed teens and seniors with failing faculties -- and one physiological issue: driver distraction, whether it comes from an electronic device or the person riding in the passenger seat.
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Some of the findings are frightening. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has been monitoring newly licensed drivers with small video cameras mounted in their cars. They show teens phoning, texting, and applying makeup, oblivious to their surroundings -- and then being jolted into awareness by a collision. One recording shows a distracted young driver being ejected through the driver's side window in an accident. Feeling immortal, teens seem to believe that seatbelts aren't meant for them -- even though they are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than their adult counterparts.

Anybody who has a teen or knows one can list the causes: inexperience, immaturity, night driving, and passenger distraction. It's enough to make you want to raise the driving age to 21.

One solution: Virginia Tech's real-time monitoring provides an opportunity to intervene immediately when it reveals signs of speeding, abrupt lane and speed changes, and drinking. But that's not practical for a large population. Toyota is offering a free two-and-a-half hour hands-on defensive driving program for teens and their parents. Some 90 teens who go through the program will be monitored for the first six months after they get their license to see how effective it is.

Teens aren't the only age group singled out in accident statistics. After a driver turns 75, the frequency of fatal accidents increases dramatically -- twice as often as a 65- to 74-year old. The simple physiological factors of aging are largely to blame: impaired visual function, slowed reflexes, reduced flexibility, and so on.

One area that has attracted researchers from Virginia Tech is "useful field of vision." It turns out that the amount of information a person can take in at a glance grows smaller with age -- by as much as 30%. Previous research indicates that the useful field of vision can be improved through training. Drivers play video games requiring them to identify objects that flash in the periphery of their vision.

VTTI and Toyota are cooperating on a three-year project to test and compare the benefits of brain fitness training to improve field of vision. Seniors will be measured on a variety of driving tasks, including speed modulation, intersection behavior, and lane changes.

One fault common to motorists of all ages is driver distraction. It isn't surprising: Driving is simple and boring much of the time, so drivers do other things while they are behind the wheel. In one study, 54 of 69 crashes were inattention-related.

Posted by at September 22, 2011 6:59 AM

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