Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Engineering the Distracted Driver

On the afternoon of June 19, 1999, Bryan Smith was driving along Maine's Route 5 in the White Mountains near the New Hampshire border. His Rottweiler was with him in the back of his Dodge Caravan. The dog did something that caused Smith to turn around to see what was the matter. While his attention was diverted from the roadway in front of him, his vehicle hit an object on the edge of the road. When Smith stopped the car to see what he'd hit, he found that it was famed author Stephen King, who subsequently underwent five operations for the injuries he sustained. Smith was not intoxicated or speeding. The only thing that kept him from seeing King in time to avoid the collision was the distraction caused by his dog.

While this is probably the most famous recent automotive accident involving a distracted driver, recent research by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute indicates that it was the tip of an iceberg that is much larger than we thought. Using high-tech instrumentation such as Doppler radars, accelerometers, and five channels of compressed video to provide a second-by-second record of over two million miles of driving, the Virginia Tech researchers analyzed events leading up to over 60 crashes documented during the study of 100 instrumented cars and their drivers. The researchers were surprised to find that driver inattention was a factor in nearly four out of five crashes. This category includes fatigue and glancing away from the forward roadway for any reason. The most common cause of driver inattention was found to be "wireless devices," which includes cellphones, although other passengers, radios, and CD players were also implicated. Further information on the study can be found at the website of the sponsoring agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, at http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/departments/nrd-13/newDriverDistraction.html.

Over 43,000 people die in U. S. auto crashes every year. In the hierarchy of things to be concerned about in engineering ethics, death is at the top. Any innovation that leads to increasing fatalities needs to be scrutinized thoroughly. From a system point of view, however, the things people do in their cars are almost uncharted territory, as the Virginia Tech research shows.

Consider a typical Saturday-morning outing for a mother and her children. Their vehicle may contain a built-in GPS navigation system, a satellite radio, a conventional radio, a CD player, and air-conditioning controls, all of which need attention at various times. She may be carrying her own cellphone and Blackberry, and her children may be watching a DVD on a player in the back seat, in addition to carrying their own phones. All of these pieces of equipment were designed without the knowledge that driver inattention is apparently a factor in almost four out of five crashes. The timing and usage of all these devices is left entirely up to the owners and operators, whose last drivers' ed course might have been two decades ago, if ever. The wonder is that anybody can drive more than a couple of miles amid such electronic chaos without hitting something.

This kind of problem has been faced before by the military, whose interest in giving fighter pilots the information they need without unduly distracting them is truly a life-or-death matter. A fighter-plane cockpit is a highly coordinated and uniform environment in which pilots know exactly what to expect, and where instruments and visual cues are placed with careful attention to their effects on the ability of the pilot to perform his job quickly and without needless fumbling.

I don't propose that we hand over control of everyone's car interior to the Department of Defense. But at some point we need to recognize that the original purpose of the automobile driver's seat—to provide a place where the operator can devote his or her full attention to the demanding task of controlling a potentially fatal piece of equipment moving at high speed—is becoming lost in the proliferation of options, gadgets, and distractions that most state driving laws permit. The one exception I am aware of is a law in most states that prohibits the operation of a television screen within the driver's line of vision. But watching TV while driving would be safer than trying to operate some of the latest digital gizmos with their multiple menus and tiny display screens.

Laws almost always lag behind technology, and with good reason. Unless a new technology poses a "clear and present danger," it is best to let enough history accumulate to allow a reasoned judgment based on sufficient evidence. The evidence of driver inattention has been long in coming, but it has now arrived. Engineers need to consider safety ideas that are out of the conventional boxes with regard to technologies used in automobiles. For example, it is technically feasible, given enough standards and agreements, to devise an interlock system that makes all controls for non-essential electronics (GPS, cellphones, etc.) inoperable while the car is in motion. If everyone had to stop or pull off to the side of the road to make a phone call or read a map, would the world come to an end? No. Time was when nobody could make phone calls from cars at all, and somehow people survived.

This isn't necessarily a call for regulation. The people with the greatest financial interest at stake in automotive safety are the insurance companies. What if they offered deep discounts for people who drove interlock-equipped cars? The automakers know that safety sells to a certain segment of consumers, primarily those with young families. Enough clever people working on this problem could come up with solutions that would not require drastic laws and would end up making the highways safer, and probably the electronics easier to operate too. The evidence is in. Now it's time to do something about it.

In the meantime, I suggest adopting the "two-second rule." The 100-car study found that short glances away from the roadway, especially for environmental checks like looking at one's rear-view mirror, were not risky as long as they took less than two seconds. But taking your eyes away from front and center for any longer than that led to increased chances of a wreck. So look away if you must, but not for longer than two seconds if you can avoid it.

Sources: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has more information on the Virginia Tech study "The Impact of Driver Inattention on Near-Crash/Crash Risk: An Analysis Using the 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study Data" at http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/departments/nrd-13/newDriverDistraction.html. The biographical information on Stephen King is from the Wikipedia article on King, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_King.

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