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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: May 4, 2012 @ 7:56 am

    Lost In Thought

    Neil Briscoe

    I can still remember the moment, listening to the radio, when I came close to sideswiping another car in traffic. It was all Mario Rosenstock’s fault; an especially pointed line in a Gift Grub sketch on Today FM had me temporarily convulsed with laughter, and temporarily heading right for the flank of a dark green Volkswagen Passat. It would have only been low speed impact, a fender bender more about cooling tempers than calling ambulances, but still a salutary reminder that the merest distraction can be the starting point for bent metal and even broken bones.

    Distraction behind the wheel is fast becoming the new drink driving, if you see what I mean. We all know the dangers of having a pint or two and then driving, and fewer and fewer of us are taking the risk, thankfully. Laws are already in place to restrict such distraction activities like using a mobile phone and some cars (Lexus, notably) have sat-nav systems that cannot be reprogrammed or fiddled with when on the move. But a new study from the University of Washington has demonstrated that even just thinking about your phone or some such device can distract you enough to be dangerous.

    “The folks who scored higher on compulsive cell phone use had more prior crashes,” said Jennifer Whitehill, one of the lead researchers on the report. “If we had a group of 100 students with the lowest scores on the (compulsive scale), we would expect that 25 had a crash in the last year.”

    “Among 100 students with the highest scores, we would see 38 crashes. That’s an extra 13 crashes per 100 students within the high-risk group. Even thinking about future cell phone calls and messages may be an additional source of distraction that could contribute to crashes.”

    It raises an Orwellian possibility of thought police following our every synapse, just waiting for us to disengage from the task of driving. Radio stations may well have to broadcast cigarette-style health warnings before a programme. “Warning: The following broadcast contains content that may be entertaining, distracting or mirthful. Please use caution when listening.” Of course, similar warnings would have to be played for excessively boring programmes, but few if any radio stations would admit to such a thing…

    Joking aside, the technology exists to monitor our situational awareness when behind the wheel, and it’s a short step to such systems being used as evidence against us (although there is always the possibility that if you own the car you can’t compel it be bear witness against you…). Mercedes and Lexus both offer driver awareness monitors that check your steering and throttle inputs and even monitor your eyeline and blink-rate to discern if you are dozing off behind the wheel. Such systems are currently expensive, but components supplier Bosch has already developed a more affordable version that will begin rolling out on the eminently affordable Volkswagen Passat this year: “Fading concentration and fatigue compromise the driver’s steering behavior and response time. Fine motor skills deteriorate, and steering behavior becomes less precise” said a spokesperson for Bosch.

    “The driver corrects small steering mistakes more often. The new driver drowsiness detection function is based on an algorithm which begins recording the driver’s steering behavior the moment the trip begins. It then recognizes changes over the course of long trips, and thus also the driver’s level of fatigue. Typical signs of waning concentration are phases during which the driver is barely steering, combined with slight, yet quick and abrupt steering movements to keep the car on track.”

    It is a serious issue, and it’s in America that policy is being promulgated to tackle distracted drivers. Given that we’ve followed America’s lead when it comes to safety and emissions regulation, don’t expect us to be too slow following them on this. Meg Ragonese, from the Nevada Department of Transportation told us that “Cognitive distractions are one of the three main types of distractions, along with visual and physical distractions, so the study makes an important point about the dangers of cognitive distractions. In fact, a Carnegie Mellon University study has illustrated that driving while using a cell phone, including hands free, reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37%.”

    Of course, for those of you now panicking about the encroaching efforts of the Thought Police, you’re forgetting one important thing. These systems don’t actually detect your thoughts, they merely monitor your control inputs and alert you to take a break when you’re getting tired. Distraction, momentary at least, would be a much harder issue to monitor. Impossible to police? not quite. After all, display the attention span of a Goldfish and it will show in your driving, and then all the Garda have to do is book you under the old-fashioned offence of ‘driving without due care and attention.’ Sometimes, it seems, new science has some very old solutions.

    • Maurice A. Veale, Consulting Motor Engineer and Assessor. says:

      Agree totally with the above. Still passing people on mobile phones. Very few obeying the speed limits. Need more road supervision to stop poor driving, lane hopping and speeding. Keep up the good work.

    • Adrian Lawler says:

      This distracted driving is getting pathetic, now car stereos are in the firing line too? If you stupid enough to stick a phone to your ear and attempt to drive a stick shift car the repair cost will teach that lesson perfectly. You don’t fiddle with Sat-Navs on route, you set them up BEFORE you go. This is all obvious – when you a behind the wheel of a car you are meant to be concentrating on DRIVING it. If the radio distracts, play music instead. Pay attention to the road ahead. It’s idiots who can’t let a call go, think that texting is a good idea while driving, Drivers driving stoned, Reading something spread over the wheel – all idiotic thing to do. If you are in control of almost a ton of steel with power enough to kill, you pay attention to what you are doing. All else should be white nosie.

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