The Ultimate Distracted Driver: Drunk and Asleep
Credit: Daily Telegraph (Australia)

Fourteen cyclists were injured and one killed when a drunk driver hit the leaders of a local bicycle race in Matamoros, Mexico (2008).

On a September evening in 2006, an Illinois teen heard a new tune on the radio and grabbed her cell phone to download the ringtone. She was headed up a broad, straight, flat stretch of Illinois 130 just outside the city of Urbana at the time. While fumbling with the phone, the 19-year-old swerved off the road, across the wide shoulder, and into the ditch. Realizing she'd driven completely off the road, she steered her car back into the traffic lane.

Unfortunately for a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of Illinois, he was riding his bicycle between her and the road. Although wearing a helmet, he died of head injuries incurred when he was struck by the driver's side of her vehicle. The young woman was fined $1,000 and was sentenced to six months' probation, the maximum allowable under Illinois law at the time[1]. 

Welcome to distracted driving; a nightmare for cyclists, pedestrians and anyone else on the road.

You Can Text and Drive and Stay Safe. Sure You Can...

Texting While Driving?
Credit: mrJasonWeaver / flickr.com

Texting while driving is about as safe as holding a twelve-foot python in your lap while driving.

What's This Distracted Driving Stuff?

The National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines distraction as "a specific type of inattention that occurs when drivers divert their attention from the driving task to focus on some other activity." Distraction has always been with us, from unruly children in the back seat to uninvited bees to adjusting the heater, but as cell phone usage has increased so has the likelihood that the driver in the lane next to you is using one - and that he or she is distracted by it. A study by the NHTSA for the year 2011[2] estimated that at any given time, 3.7% of drivers aged 16-24, nationwide, were fiddling with a handheld device while driving - an amazing 150% increase over the same metric for 2010.

As almost anyone who drives can attest, distraction affects the ability of drivers to perform at their best. Drivers become less aware of their speed relative to neighboring vehicles and posted limits and they are also more prone to wander from side to side inside and outside of traffic lanes. Those symptoms are only the tip of the iceberg.

Yup: Safe...

Just One of the Places You Might End up when Driving Distracted
Credit: columbia114 / morguefile.com

At least this driver didn't hit anyone else on the way to the ditch!

Cognitive distraction is the truth of so-called "multitasking": everyone thinks they're the world's best multitasker, but that's not the way human brains are wired. Every new task you take on distracts from the main, or most important, task at hand. So, cognitive distraction behind the wheel is what happens when a driver shifts attention away from the tasks needed to drive the vehicle safely so he or she can perform some other activity, whether it's disciplining the dog, tuning the radio, or checking email. When that happens, a driver can no longer devote as much "processing power" in the brain to the real tasks associated with driving; tasks like noticing moving and stationary objects around them, recognizing potential danger, or responding to traffic signals.

Does Hands-Free Help?

In recent years, many states have introduced legislation that is supposedly intended to curb distracted driving. Much of the earliest legislation concentrated on removing phones from the driver's hands; promoting hands-free systems as "safer" than holding a device in the hand while talking. As smartphones have become the norm, more recent legislation has attempted to restrict the use of the devices to text, check email, surf the internet, and other tasks.

Studies carried out by academic institutions and interested groups, as summarized by the National Safety Council [3], found that merely removing the device from a driver's hand does nothing to reduce driver distraction. According to the NSC, it is not the device that is a distraction, it is the conversation: the part of the brain that is concentrating on the telephone conversation, the problem at work, the grocery list, or Janie's latest boyfriend is no longer available to scan the roadside for pedestrians.

So, no: hands-free apparently doesn't help much.


The Latest and Greatest in Driver Distraction?

MyFordTouch: A/V immersion Behind the Wheel
Credit: Ford Motor Company

The media sync system in a 2013 Ford Focus. 

Media Interfaces: Are the Latest Gadgets Even Worse?

Unless you've been under a rock for the past couple of years, you know that the next generation of passenger cars is designed to be completely integrated with all the latest: social media, audio-video immersion, and all. Theoretically, these in-dash consoles are designed to be as hands-free as humanly possible; with a concentration on voice activation of just about any function. Want to tweet? voice-activated. Want to download the latest from One Direction? voice-activated. Want to text your BFF or email your grandma? voice-activated. A revolution in safety, right?


A 2013 study[4] by a team of researchers at the University of Utah, commissioned by the American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation, says something completely different. The researchers tested a group of volunteers under laboratory conditions in a vehicle simulator and again while driving a vehicle (accompanied by an observer with an auxiliary braking system). The results may be surprising - and then again, they may not.

A test subject in a distracted driving study
Credit: University of Utah, AAA Foundation

This test subject in a distracted driving study is wired for measurement of his reaction time and level of attention during an on-the-road test.

What Distracts You?

The research team evaluated a variety of variables - reaction time, braking reaction, following distance, recognition of possible hazards - under controlled conditions and while having the participants complete standardized tasks. The measurements were taken while the subjects drove without distractions, while listening to the radio and a book on tape, while conversing with a passenger, while using a hand-held phone and a hands-free phone, and while performing speech-to-text (as one might when replying to an email with a modern audio system).

The results? Well, they put together a "distraction scale," like this [5]:

  • Driving alone with no distractions (control): 1.00
  • Listening to the radio:  1.21
  • Listening to a book on tape:  1.75
  • Talking to a passenger:  2.33
  • Talking on a handheld phone: 2.45
  • Talking on a hands-free phone: 2.27
  • Using a speech-to-text system for email:  3.06

So again, no: the latest wrinkle in in-vehicle connectedness is not a step forward.

Predictably, the automotive industry cried foul when the study results were announced, saying that the study was unscientific and biased. Spokespersons for the industry, however, did not cite evidence to support their statements.