From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Distracted Driving: Passengers, Cell Phones & On-board Controls

As I’m preparing my car for a road trip to Montana, a news report reminds me of the dangers of distracted driving.  The report was about an acquaintance — a fellow cross country ski racer, who was biking in Wisconsin when he was struck and killed by a car. The driver of the vehicle was apparently distracted by young children in the car and drifted off the road striking the biker.

This tragic report got me thinking about all the distractions we face when driving and how severe a brief lapse of attention can be.  You may be familiar with the studies showing that talking on a cell phone while driving causes performance impairments equivalent to driving with a 0.08 blood alcohol level, and the study showing that a hands-free headset does little to improve driving performance. Interestingly, U of Utah researchers showed that conversing with a passenger in the same car is much less distracting because passengers often share in the traffic monitoring and situational awareness necessary for safe driving. (Search the Ergoweb archives for Distracted Driving). Currently, 10 states have banned talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving, even though the evidence suggests that hands-free cell phone use is little or no safer for drivers.

Other distractions can arise from the design and layout of the controls in the car.  Earlier this summer my family and I picked up a rental car at the Salt Lake City airport. One of the features of this car was a modern looking climate control panel.  This panel included a multitude of small buttons arranged in parallel rows extending deep down the dash toward the gear shifter. Other than the buttons being arranged on the left or right for the driver or passenger, the shape and placement of the buttons gave no clue as to their function.  Contrast this with the climate controls on my old car at home: a sliding lever provides more or less heat when moving side to side and a round fan control knob increases or decreases the blower speed as it is rotated. The shape, size, location, and possible movement patterns all provide clues or coding as to the function of the control. A driver can locate and operate this older manual climate control just by feel, without taking the eyes off the road.

The small buttons in the rental car got me thinking about the trend towards digital touch screen controls in some newer cars.  Touch screen controls have virtual buttons that can’t be located by touch. They remove all tactile feedback and place a far greater demand on visual processing to locate and operate the proper icon.  With a touch screen you can’t simply reach over and feel around for the button to turn up the heat or to turn down the volume – you need to look and then reach.  Taking your eyes off the road to do this is a distraction when driving.

Applying haptics or tactile feedback to touch screens can simulate some of the feedback lost when going from a real knob or dial to a digital icon.  Haptic feedback may include providing sounds, forces, vibrations or motions to a virtual object. This can let the driver know if the intended action of a virtual button has been carried out.  In other instances haptics can provide feedback to prevent accidents. An example is a “stick shaker” used in the aviation industry. This shaker stick is vibrating device installed in the control system of large aircraft and is intended to simulate vibratory feedback of the wind on the flaps. This vibratory feedback allows a pilot to sense when the plane approached a stall. In older planes this vibration was transmitted through the cables to the flight controls. When larger planes moved to motorized or powered controls on the flaps this feedback was lost. Adding a virtual stick shaker provided a necessary feedback to the pilot and helps them avert a potentially deadly stall.

Distracted driving is a huge issue when it comes to traffic safety, and the introduction of more technology in the dashboard has the potential to introduce new sources of distraction for drivers.  We need to ensure that the technology does not require more visual and cognitive attention. When driving please be aware of your surroundings and of those around you. Safe travels!

Gene Kay has a Masters degree in Exercise Science and is a Certified Ergonomics Associate. He has been designing web-based ergonomics programs for over 10 years, and owns the ErgoAdvocate Ergonomics Training program.  Gene has served as the American Express Global Ergonomics Manager, a Rehab Services Manager, and is Past-President of the Upper Midwest Chapter of HFES.

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2011-08-16.