Driver distraction a ‘leading cause’ of accidents

Increasingly distracting capabilities offered by smartphones can have deadly consequences

Drivers who are engaged in a telephone conversation while driving do so at the expense of their peripheral vision.   Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

Drivers who are engaged in a telephone conversation while driving do so at the expense of their peripheral vision. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

Thu, Mar 20, 2014, 10:12

Driver distraction is a “major problem” that has become a leading cause of road traffic collisions, a leading authority on road safety has warned.

Professor John D Lee, of the University of Wisconsin, made his comments ahead of an Road Safety Authority (RSA) conference on driver distraction taking place in Dublin today.

“Driver distraction is becoming a more serious issue with the influx of all sorts of new technology coming into the car. Currently it accounts for something like 15-20 per cent of crashes - so, it’s a major problem,” Prof Lee told RTÉ this morning.

The constantly evolving range of features and capability offered by modern-day smartphones is becoming increasingly problematic - and can have deadly consequences, he said.

“The smartphones of today allow you to do a huge range of things. With hundreds of thousands of difference apps available . The variety of things you can be doing while driving is really stunning - and potentially deadly.

Prof Lee said the technology was very seductive and drivers often find it difficult to avoid interacting with their device when prompted.

“It’s very tempting and almost unavoidable to answer a phone that rings or respond to the buzz of a text message coming in,” but his advice was to “just switch it off.”

Focus

“I think that the illusion that you can do two things at once is just that - it’s an illusion. That you are doing two things at once, one of the things is going to suffer. Either you are going to degrade your driving performance and put yourself at risk or the phone conversation that you’re having is going to suffer and you’re not going to be as sharp on that phone conversation.”

“So, in general, I think there is a benefit to just focusing on one thing at a time because you’re really not going to be able to do two things at a time. So, turn off the phone when you get into the car.

While modern hands-free technology is “less distracting” than hand-held mobile phones, Prof Lee said “it is still a distraction” and can degrade the motorist’s driving capability.

“Even if you are looking at the road, you may not actually be seeing the road in the same way when you are engaged in a telephone call.”

New technology

Prof Lee said there is an increasing battle “for the eyes and mind of the driver” and while it can be less distracting than smartphone-based interaction, Prof Lee said voice-contolled communication can still cause a “substantial” distraction while driving.

The ability to multi-task is merely perceived, Prof Lee said.

“What we don’t appreciate in day -to-day interaction is that we are really able to do one thing at a time. Our minds can shift between things pretty easily but there’s that illusion that we are actually doing two things at the same time the truth is that we’re actually doing one thing at a time.

Drivers who are engaged in a telephone conversation while driving do so at the expense of their peripheral vision.

“You may think you are seeing things on the road but when you are engaged in a telephone conversation the pattern of your eye glances across the road shifts and you become more focused - concentrated on the centre of the road”

The RSA’s annual conference which is taking place in Dublin today will focus on the impacts of driver distraction and will explore the challenges presented by new technologies and ways to mitigate driver distraction.

Speakers include Prof John D Lee, Ms Michelle Kuckelman, AT&T, and Francesco Mitis, World Health Organisation.