Friday, 6 March 2009

Driving ergonomics

Following on from my post about the Foot-LITE project last week, a number of driving-related stories have caught my eye in the media since. Each of these has an ergonomics spin related to my professional and personal interests.

The first is a report on the local BBC news about new developments in vehicle automation (featuring one of our colleagues on Foot-LITE, Eric Chan from Ricardo). What really amuses me about this piece is the barely-contained skepticism of the reporter, who clearly doesn't like the idea of the car doing half the task for him. Whilst I've always said I never want to come across as technophobic about such matters, the points he's making are valid ones. Issues of trust (in the automation), behaviour modification (note the junction which he takes much faster than he would've done normally) and allocation of function (what's left over for the driver to do and is this really a coherent task?) are all relevant ergonomics challenges. Where this particular system is going in the right direction, however, is in its efforts to provide support for higher-level aspects of driving - hazard detection and avoidance. My view is that we don't need to automate the low-level, vehicle control activities - because we're already quite good at this stuff. Where we need help is in the more complex, decision-making aspects of the task - where we're more susceptible to errors.

The problem of mobile (cell) phones and driving reared its head again in this report, based on a new study by David Strayer at the University of Utah. I'm not going to labour the point because it's been well made already, but what I will say is that this is one area of the science where it's as good as an open and shut case. As scientists, we never say we've absolutely proved any finding - we only tak in degrees of certainty. However, the evidence base for the detrimental effects of phoning and driving is so strong now, it's as close to certain as we're ever going to be. I'm not saying we should stop researching it, but all of the data so far say pretty much the same thing. I'd go so far as to say it's a fact - using your mobile when driving increases your accident risk. And that's whether it's hand-held or hands-free - the research says it's the same either way. So whilst we now have it enshrined in UK law for hand-held phones, we really ought to take more responsibility and ignore the phone completely when we're on the move.

Finally, the increasing popularity of hybrid and electric cars raised a potential ergonomics problem in my own mind recently as I was cycling around my local town. Waiting at a traffic light, I was confident that I had clear roads around me, but when I did my 'lifesaver' check over the shoulder before pulling away, a hybrid car in electric mode had silently crept up on me. Making me realise how much I used my ears when cycling, this experience set me thinking about the safety concerns for cyclists and pedestrians - especially partially sighted ones. Sure enough, ergonomists have picked up on the issue (see this report) and go so far as to suggest using fake noises in electric cars to get around the problem. Kind of a 21st-century equivalent of the man waving the red flag in front of the car.

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