Despite abundant ergonomics research that shows talking on the phone while driving is outright unsafe, motorists show no sign that they are ready to quit the habit. New research could help explain why. Reported recently in the Journal of Safety Research of the National Safety Council (NSC), it found drivers overestimate their road skills while inaccurately ranking distractions.
In January the NSC became the first national organization to call for a total ban the habit, based on research that indicates cell phone use while driving contributes to 6 percent of crashes, or 636,000 crashes, 330,000 injuries, 12,000 serious injuries and 2,600 deaths each year. More than 100 million people do it every day, the report notes, and places these drivers at a four-times greater risk of a crash.
And hands-free mobiles don’t let drivers off the hook. Studies finger talking on the phone as the culprit—a complex activity that competes with the close attention needed to drive a car safely. Inattention as brief as a couple of seconds can result in a driver losing control.
Led by William J. Horrey of the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety in Massachusetts, the study involved 41 drivers willing to test the effects of engaging in other distracting activities while they drive. Participants demonstrated their driving ability in lane keeping, speed control and quick response to a changing traffic light. Next, they demonstrated the same skills while also performing a relatively easy distracting activity—recalling, adding, and repeating simple numbers presented while driving—and a relatively difficult one, which involved developing and asking yes-or-no questions to identify an object while driving. The researchers expected that the more difficult activity would require more thought and thereby distract drivers more significantly from safe driving.
The results showed that the more difficult activity reduced driving safety more than the easier one, but also showed that drivers did not recognize one activity as more difficult than the other and estimated no difference between the effect of the activities on their driving abilities. According to Horrey and his researchers, these results, combined with previous studies, suggest that drivers are not aware of their own performance loss due to distraction.
“Today it is important to understand how new in-vehicle tasks affect drivers’ performance as well as how they affect drivers’ perceptions of their own performance,” the study concludes, noting that commercial drivers frequently have to deal with other distracting activities as part of their jobs, at a high cost in crashes to employers. The study also outlines the steep costs to employers of off-the-job crashes due to distracted driving, compounded by a national increase in the length of daily commuting times.
Source: National Safety Council