February 2001

From University of Michigan

Reduce drive distraction

"Workload managers" could reduce driver distraction and make driving safer, says U-M auto safety expert

Troy, Mi---Cars equipped with cellular phones, navigation systems, video players and Internet access offer drivers more information than ever before, making driving more convenient and automobiles more functional---and fun. But such systems can also distract drivers enough to be hazardous. Setting safety standards and regulations is one way of protecting motorists, but there may be a better solution, says Paul Green, a senior research scientist with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).

Green, who spoke Feb. 5 at an automotive safety conference sponsored by the Society of Plastics Engineers, urged development of "workload managers"---computer systems that assess driving demands and driver capabilities on a moment-by-moment basis and adjust the flow of information to the driver accordingly.

Drivers are accustomed to operating some devices while driving---headlights and windshield wipers, for example. But the products known as telematics---navigation, entertainment, communications, safety, security and other computer and communication based systems and services---can be much more distracting for drivers to use, says Green, who heads the UMTRI Driver Interface Group. Much of the evidence comes from Japan, where police have kept track of accidents caused by the use of navigation systems or cellular phones. Since the end of 1999, when Japan banned the use of handheld phones while driving, cell phone-related crashes have plummeted by 75 percent. It is unclear how much of the decline reflects an actual reduction in crash rate and how much is due to underreporting of phone-related crashes (since the use of phones while driving is now illegal). But police reports of accidents prior to the ban clearly indicate that cell phone use played a significant role in causing crashes.

Using a hands-free phone doesn't necessarily reduce risk, Green adds.

"Requiring the use of hands-free phones may reduce the risk associated with retrieving and holding the phone, but the main problem is that the act of answering the phone can happen at an inopportune time---in heavy traffic, for example," he says. What's more, talking on the phone isn't the same as talking to a passenger while driving. Passengers usually keep an eye on the road, often pointing out traffic problems before the driver notices them. In a phone conversation, the person on the other end of the line chatters away, oblivious to what's happening on the highway. Hands-on or hands-off, the risk of a crash is about four times greater when a driver is talking on the phone than when the phone is not in use, one study showed.

Experiments also have shown that the greater a driver's workload---a measure that takes into account everything a driver needs to look at, listen to, think about and remember and how immediate the demands are---the greater the potential for telematics to interfere with driving. But while a number of organizations and agencies are hashing out safety standards, it is difficult to make standards flexible enough to factor in workload.

That's where workload managers could shine, says Green. "For example, incoming cell phone calls might be automatically routed to an answering machine in heavy traffic, but permitted to go through on a straight road with no traffic." The concept may sound futuristic, but most of the sensors and other equipment needed to inform a workload manager are already available---or soon will be---in luxury vehicles. Navigation systems know where the vehicle is and can compute the demands of driving related to twists and turns in the road; adaptive cruise control can sense nearby vehicles and provide information on traffic; input from the clock and headlight and wiper switches gives hints about visibility; the traction control system provides data on the condition of the road surface; and the speedometer knows how fast the vehicle is moving. And it's not just the vehicle that can be monitored---steering wheel and throttle sensors, along with a "driver personality module" in the ignition key, offer up information about the driver's age and driving habits.

All that's lacking are the instructions telling the workload manager how to put all the information together and how to react in various situations. And that, says Green, is a void that will not be filled quickly or easily.

"Many years of research will need to be completed before such software could be developed, and unfortunately the research needed for that purpose is not being conducted," he says. "There are no signs that the funding necessary---an order of magnitude increase over current funding---will become available, and this should be a significant concern to organizations that see a future in telematics."

Additional information on UMTRI Driver Interface Group research may be found at http://www.umich.edu/~driving/index.html.












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