Published July/August 2013

What’s on Your Mind?

Driver distraction, from phone conversations to voice-activated technologies, is a danger to everyone on the road

BYTom Vanderbilt
When David Strayer’s children were younger, they would, as children do, sometimes make faces at passing drivers on family trips. One time, as he began to tell them that it wasn’t a good idea to distract a driver, as he usually did, he realized that the other driver didn’t even notice. “The person was on a cellphone,” says Dr. Strayer, a psychologist at The University of Utah. “He was not paying attention to what someone else was doing — he was completely zoned out.”
This has become the state of driving in America, where an estimated one in 10 drivers at any one time talks on the phone while driving — the highest rate in the world. You’ve seen it: The driver who weaves from side to side, or who conspicuously slows, or who seems mildly surprised to note that the traffic light has turned to green.
Major Multitasking
Few people have devoted as much time and intellectual energy to the problem of distracted driving as Strayer, who for more than a decade has studied the issue, bringing his findings to forums ranging from state legislatures to The Oprah Winfrey Show.
His latest research, at the behest of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, does something entirely novel. Using measures of driver performance in a simulator and on the road, as well as performing other tests, Strayer created a five-point scale (as with hurricanes) for assessing how much certain tasks and forms of technology affect drivers.
Driving itself, we should remember, requires a base level of mental effort. “It’s category one, not category zero,” says Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety and research. But what happens when you layer other activities on top of that? Do hands-free phones impair drivers less than hand-held phones? Is listening to the radio the same as listening to an email read by a smartphone app? Is talking to your passenger worse than talking to your car’s voice-activated infotainment system? Here’s what the research shows:
  • Phone conversations had essentially the same effect whether they happened on a hands-free or hand-held device (even as surveys show a majority of motorists believe hands-free to be safer).
  • Audiobooks required more mental workload than the radio.
  • “Speech-to-text” systems were much more demanding — a category three distraction — than simply listening to the radio or talking on the phone. Strayer suggests it may involve the lack of “back-channel” communication, those conversational cues we get from talking to real people — the same way, he suggests, we often stumble a bit when trying to leave a voice mail message.
  • The absolute highest level of workload came during the so-called “Operation Span” exercise, which requires people to do a series of math and memory tasks
GPS vs. Facebook
What in the real world of driving is even remotely similar to Operation Span? Strayer wondered the same thing. Then he considered a new car he had taken out on a test drive. The infotainment features included a system for booking movie reservations.
“You’re not sure what’s playing, what times are available, what theaters,” he says. “You reserve your seat, give your credit card info — that entire series of operations is going to be at least a category three, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of those pushed into category four.” All of this is happening while the driver’s eyes are on the road and their hands on the wheel. But, as the phenomenon of “inattention blindness,” or the ability to miss something right in front of you, has shown, people who seem to be paying attention can be distracted. “Eyes off the road is a bad thing,” says Strayer. “It’s just that eyes on the road doesn’t mean it’s safe.”
And it’s the increasing availability, and complexity, of in-car, voice-activated technologies that prompted AAA to support Strayer’s work. Simply adjusting the temperature or interacting with GPS — activities connected with driving — can be distracting. “When you get into the world of updating Facebook or Twitter, or booking a dinner reservation,” says Nelson, “these are things that ought not to be done while driving a car.”
Nelson says the current research does not call for a ban on voice-activated technology, nor is it meant to be punitive to automakers. “We simply want to throw a flag down on this play and say, ‘hey, we’ve learned something new here that we want to sit down and talk about,’ ” he says.
TOM VANDERBILT writes for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Wired, and Smithsonian. His most recent book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), is a New York Times best-seller.
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