4  Minimizing Driver Distraction

There are a variety of things that can be done to minimize driver distraction. Social interventions, such as legislation and driver education are important, although it is generally agreed that the effectiveness of these are limited. For example, a legislative ban on cell phone use in moving vehicles may be a good idea, but cell phone use is just one of many possible distractors, and it is unclear how effectively such a law could be enforced, and how large a decrease in distraction-related accidents would result. Economic sanctions which naturally occur as a result of increasing insurance rates (say, for example, higher rates for people who use cell phones while driving, or are involved in accidents while using a cell phone) may also have an effect, although it is likely that such sanctions will take a while to put into place, and is clearly a reactive strategy.

Technological and design solutions to minimize driver distraction is important. Vehicles and in-vehicle devices must be designed with safety in mind, and working with ergonomicists and others who study human attention is crucial.

For example, The U.S. Department of Transportation sponsored Human Factors Design Guidelines for “Advanced Traveler Information Systems” (ATIS).

There is some research indicating that speech-based interaction for controlling in-vehicle devices–that is, being able to talk with your car about the things you want it to do–may help minimize distraction, perhaps because it allows the driver to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously (i.e., simple talking/listening while scanning the road). Also, it may be the case that older and younger drivers have similar response characteristics for speech-based systems. It’s a very complicated issue however, with lots of confounding variables. For example, it is a well-known ergonomic principle that listening to long speech segments requires a high cognitive load (because of short-term memory rehearsal requirements), and thus the ability to multi-task may decrease because thinking what’s being said interferes with thinking about driving.

Improving the sensing and reactive abilities of vehicles may also help to minimize distractions, or at least notice when a driver is becoming distracted or drowsy. For example, it has been suggested that heart rate monitors in seat belts may be useful, because certain heart characteristics are correlated with cognitive workload. As another example, navigation systems might be augmented with ratings on how dangerous intersections are. The navigation system might respond differently at dangerous intersections than at less dangerous ones or on straight portions, just as a passenger giving directions tends to not give directions at busy intersections.

Currently, most accident-causing distractions occur outside the vehicle, so it must be recognized that any technological solutions inside the vehicle will have a minimal effect on overall distraction-related accidents. Still, it is hard to argue that the increasing complexity of in-vehicle tasks will not play an increasingly large role in increasing driver distraction.