The Car and Truck Fleet and Leasing Management Magazine

Driver Distraction Linked to 20-30% of Accidents

August 2004, by Cindy Brauer - Also by this author

Researchers are exploring the link between traffic accidents and driver distraction caused by the use of on-board wireless technologies. These increasingly sophisticated in-vehicle amenities include Internet accessing tools, navigational systems, voice mail, e-mail, CD players, and other telematic systems.

According to studies conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), some form of driver distraction is a contributing factor in 20-30 percent of all traffic crashes. These distractions include not only electronic devices, but also eating and drinking, dealing with another passenger or child, personal grooming, and adjusting the radio.

The growing use of on-board technology, however, is the focus of government and industry research. A 2002 NHTSA study, the “National Survey of Distracted and Drowsy Drivers,” revealed that about a third of all drivers reported using a cell phone for outgoing or incoming calls while driving. Mobile phone users estimated spending 60 percent of their cell phone use while driving. The NHTSA study concluded that distraction-induced incidents involved an estimated 292,000 drivers over a five-year period.

Research efforts have turned to examining the physical and behavioral elements of driver distraction. Funded by a $1.5 million NHTSA grant, the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator lab is conducting two projects, one studying the effect of hands-free and manual phone use on drivers and the other exploring the relation between mobile phone conversation variables (content, length, intensity) and driver distraction.

The $10 million General Motors SenseAble Driving initiative funds several research efforts, including a three-year study, scheduled to conclude this year, at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois. Scientists are investigating programs to modify drivers’ interaction with vehicles and are evaluating training strategies to enhance drivers’ cognitive, perceptual, and motor skills. Another GM-sponsored study at Wayne State University has examined the physiological basis of distraction and driver performance.

Research by OnStar Corporation, a provider of in-vehicle communications services, suggests that manually dialing a cell phone “significantly impairs a driver’s ability to scan the driving environment.” The study found manual dialing created a lack of forward and peripheral awareness that “may create a detriment in responding to sudden events that would require an emergency maneuver” while driving.

A 2003 University of Utah study found that the cell phone conversation itself created “inattention blindness,” the inability to recognize objects encountered in the driver’s visual field. This blindness occurs whether hands-free or hand-held cell phones are used. The authors suggest that legislation banning hand-held cell phones is “not likely to significantly reduce driver distractions associated with cell phones.

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