DEARBORN, MI --- Ford Motor Co., as the final phase of its research into the cause and effects of distracted driving, is using high-tech goggles that measure the amount of time drivers take their eyes off the road to help validate in-vehicle technologies such as GPS navigation systems. 

The special "occlusion" goggles are used in testing at Ford's Human Machine Interface Verification Laboratory -- or "Distraction Lab." Ford engineers and technologists use the data to accelerate the safer design of telematics systems that keep drivers connected and informed. 

In occlusion studies, the test subject wears goggles equipped with small liquid crystal display (LCD) screens that rapidly blink open and closed in a regulated sequence while the subject views graphics and text information on a new device such as a navigation screen. Open goggles represent eyes-off-road time, or when the driver is looking away at a device. Closed goggles represent eyes-on-road time. 

If 85 percent or more of test subjects are able to complete a task on screen in the time allowed -- such as reading and selecting an address on a navigation screen -- the task is considered compliant with industry guidelines. However, if the test subject cannot complete the task in time, the function is designed to be locked-out when the vehicle is in motion, and can only be operated when the vehicle is stopped. 

"Occlusion testing is faster and a lot more efficient than other methods for determining eyes-off-road time and the potential for visual distraction," said John Shutko, Ford technical specialist in human factors engineering and ergonomics. "In the past, we used occlusion testing primarily to verify other research, but over the past couple of years we've been able to develop test models with the technology that allows us to rapidly complete research faster than ever before." 

Thanks in part to occlusion testing, the information displayed on Ford's latest-generation navigation system is purposely limited to comply with industry guidelines and help reduce the risk of driver distraction. 

Occlusion testing also was instrumental in determining the appropriate amount of information provided to drivers who use the latest SYNC application -- Traffic, Directions & Information (TDI). 

The feature takes advantage of SYNC's voice-recognition software, integrated GPS and Bluetooth-capable phones to provide hands-free access to personalized traffic reports, driving directions and information including business listings, news, sports and weather. This information is provided through the car's audio entertainment speakers, allowing the driver to keep hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

"Studies show voice-operated systems like SYNC offer significant safety benefits over hand-held manual devices," said Dr. Louis Tijerina, Ford senior technical specialist. "If people are going to use nomadic devices -- and there's no reason to believe that they will stop -- Ford wants to offer our customers a safer way to use them, through SYNC." 

A recent study showed that SYNC, Ford's voice-operated in-car communications and entertainment system, significantly reduced the level of distraction when test participants selected a phone number or chose a song on their MP3 player compared with the same operations using hand-held cell phones and music players. For example, the research conducted by Ford shows study participants spent an average of 25 seconds with their eyes off the road to select a song with a hand-held MP3 player compared with two seconds for those choosing a song using SYNC, the company said.   

Teens may be particularly vulnerable to driver distraction because they lack experience behind the wheel and may not recognize the risks of hand-held texting and dialing while driving. Recent studies show four out of five teens use cell phones and MP3 players, and many of them associate their wireless devices with an improved quality of life, according to a national survey from CTIA and Harris Interactive. 

Ford research shows that teens, particularly 16- and 17-year-olds, do not have the experience that allows them to self-limit tasks while driving, such as taking their eyes off the road for longer periods of time to manually dial a phone number, send a text message or search for a song to play.  

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has estimated that distracted driving may be involved in some capacity in up to 80 percent of road collisions. These distractions may include friends in vehicles, eating, smoking and the use of nomadic electronic devices. 

"The national government has called texting while driving a national epidemic, and this is especially true for teenagers who text more than adults and do so in a more dangerous way while driving," said Sue Cischke, Ford group vice president for sustainability, environment and safety engineering. "At Ford, teen safety and driver distraction are critically important issues -- not just during National Teen Driver Safety Week, but year-round. We also recognize that responsible, experienced drivers want to stay connected in their vehicles, so Ford has designed voice-operated systems to deliver connectivity in a safer manner." 

A recent Ford-commissioned survey showed that younger drivers view driving distraction risks differently. Only 61 percent of those under the age of 35 believe that reading text messages from a mobile device is "very dangerous" compared to 92 percent of study participants older than 50. 

Despite the differences, the survey showed that 86 percent of U.S. drivers believe hand-held texting while driving is "very dangerous" and 93 percent support a nationwide ban on texting. Sixty-eight percent of drivers, including 66 percent aged 35 or younger, believe teens would be less likely to comply with bans. 

The online survey was conducted Sept. 18-21 by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates. Ford endorses a federal ban on manually sending text messages on hand-held devices while driving.