July 1, 2018


Making Distracted Driving Worse (Fredrick Kunkle, 7/01/18, The Washington Post)

Madeleine McCarty, a lab manager in the psychology department at the University of Utah, put me behind the wheel of a Dodge Ram pickup. The track was pretty simple, with just a couple of turns and stop signs.

Then she attached a little button to my finger that clicked on and off when pressed against the steering wheel. She also fitted me with a buzzer that vibrated against my collarbone. Next, we adjusted a small, shaded lightbulb so that when the light bulb was illuminated, its reflection appeared on the inside of the windshield in my field of vision.

These two stimuli -- the buzzer and the reflected light bulb -- were supposed to mimic the sorts of unexpected things drivers need to look out for. Whenever the buzzer vibrated or the light bulb changed color from orange to red, I was supposed to click the button on my finger. My reaction times would be collected by a computer.

Then McCarty started heaping on the cognitive load: To set a baseline for the experiment, she asked me to listen to a sequence of numbers and repeat them (with a slight delay) while we continued to drive around the track, all the while responding to the buzzer and the blinking light.

Then we got down to the nitty-gritty. McCarty rode shotgun as I drove the course testing three different hands-free navigation systems: Dodge's built-in system, followed by Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto.

All I had to was ask Dodge, Siri or Google to direct me to the nearest coffee shop, the nearest library or the nearest Italian restaurant while driving at least 10 mph on the track and keeping up with the light bulb and buzzer. On another run, I had to drive, watch for the light, respond to the dang buzzer and perform a separate task on a touch screen mounted to the dashboard. In each case, it soon became clear why we had to sign legal waivers to do the test.

It drove me batty. It felt like complete overload. [...]

It's also potentially deadly, of course. An estimated 3,500 people die because of distracted driving every year.

Strayer said he believes a sharp increase in traffic fatalities in recent years, particularly for pedestrians and bicyclists, is a direct consequence of the ubiquity of smartphones and other distractions drivers now face in the Information Age.

"There's too much stuff. It's too complicated to use. It's supporting tasks that really shouldn't be done while you're driving, and it leads to high levels of distraction," Strayer said. "If you start to overload a driver, they're just not going to see what's down the road."

The value of the lives we're going to save is incalculable.

Posted by at July 1, 2018 7:50 AM