Distractions can be a Killer (1057)


This week we’re looking at Distractions on the highway by friend and colleague Merkel Weiss. As you will recall, Merkel is a guest columnist from time to time. His accomplishments are many and include being a Mechanical Engineer, an accident reconstruction expert witness to the courts, a past professor of Automotive Engineering at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA and Design engineer for Chrysler Corporation.

Here is his take on today’s technology in automobiles and is insightful and presented for your consideration. I suspect, like me, many will relate to this and take it as advice on how you will want to behave while in your car on the highway at 70 mph.

Hands Free Technology                                                                by Merkel Weiss 10/2014

This week I saw a small report on the news involving some research done on in-car technology recently. The gist of it is that distraction was divided into 4 categories; 1 being little – such as driving with a radio playing; 2 is slight – as when you pop a CD into a player, 3 is more involved – such as when you have to reset you mirrors while driving and 4 is high – such situations where your attention is dangerously refocused.

Tests were performed and overall scores were assigned to each of several manufacturers’ in-house technologies. Toyota was the best in the mid-2s somewhere. Chrysler was next then Chevrolet in the 3s, followed by Mercedes Benz and last Ford in the 4s.

This contrasts the federal laws pertaining to the subject of driver interfaces where we are led to believe that hands-free technologies are inherently safer than those that we enter through a keypad. This is the subject that I’d like to take up in this article. I think that as far as the laws go, the assumptions are basically correct that hands-free data manipulation is safer than keyboard entry such as texting. I think that we can all pretty much uniformly agree that this seems to be true.

But the real question is whether or not hands free operation is safe enough to reduce driver distraction and then reduce those distraction-related crashes. I’ll just say up front that I’ve never believed that on board technology is sufficiently free of distraction whether or not it’s hands free because it’s been my experience as an accident reconstructionist that so long as the brain is to some extent engaged in data processing the roadway, duties are therefore distracted to that extent. The researchers saw that at higher levels of distraction, drivers tended to exhibit an attention blindness where they were looking straight ahead but failed to comprehend what was in front of them, rear-ending the car they were following.

The reason for this is that people tend to process these data streams in a serial manner. If we could process in parallel, like a lizard with 2 eyes each independent of one another, we could then avoid distraction because concentration on the one wouldn’t tend to occupy space needed by the other.

In the battery of tests, drivers were placed in virtual driving simulators and tasked with certain kinds of hands-free data input, like making a call and such. The difficulties mainly arose when the voice technology did not comprehend the instruction, causing the driver to reassess the situation and input the data stream differently. Mercedes Benz’s Command and Ford’s “My Touch” appeared to be the most troublesome in that regard while Toyota’s systems were the most user friendly.

My take on this discussion is that like most people I like listening to the radio while I’m driving. Generally speaking I don’t much care to be involved in traffic accidents. Simplistic radio button pushing takes little concentration and hence involves no significant distraction. Technology in cars today has become very sophisticated, and some companies such as Cadillac have publicly stated that they want to have cutting edge technology in their cars to promote sales. In this regard, our federal regulations involving this technology are about a decade behind and rapidly losing ground to the point of near irrelevance.

As the year to year level of in-car technology increases in scope and applied sophistication, the driver requirements increase as well. The problem is that as drivers, our abilities don’t increase and in general, only tend to decrease slowly with age. So now we’re looking at more technology, automated driving, to unload us and give us the space to perform the tasks at hand in our cars which are rapidly becoming our mobile office. This is still in the future and may well be the panacea that we hope for, but for now we’re left with rapidly rising technological demand, and crowded roads on which to operate our hands-free devices. For this reason, I never talk on the phone while driving and I pull over if I need to interface.

Good News:

There is more and more technology in our cars!

Bad News:

There is more and more technology in our cars!

In closing I have to add my reaction to Merkel’s concerns. First, I agree. I can relate and as recent as yesterday I was fully engrossed in a telephone conversation via my Cell Phone hands-free through the car’s audio and when I finished the conversation I had no recall about the traffic around and in front of me. It’s like the streaming phone conversation has completely blinded me for the other task of driving. I was nearly asleep but in any case not fully aware of my driving duties and distracted.

However, that being said, the car I was driving was well equipped with other safety devices. In particular it was on “auto pilot” in the sense that the Adaptive Cruise or Smart Cruise Control was engaged and would stop if traffic stopped in front of me and that would surely bring me back to the matter at hand. If I drifted out of lane – termed Lane Departure control – an audible sound would alert me of the error. Perhaps over time as we are provided with more such amazing safety devices they will be an offset to our inability to “TRULY” Multi-task.


Your comments are welcomed. My e-mail is joe@autolove.com
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