Friday, 19 June 2009

Distracted drivers

Something I’ve been meaning to post on since I saw it a month ago, is a story on ergoweb with a new perspective on the perennial problem of driver distractions from mobile phones. As the article comments, and as I’ve mentioned here a few times before, the fact that mobile phones are distracting is nothing new to ergonomists. But this new research from Liberty Mutual suggests that drivers aren’t aware of how much they’re being distracted.

I think this is interesting from a number of perspectives. There’s all the deep psychological stuff, such as the interaction between mental workload and situation awareness (that is, the fact that they’re loaded with a distracting task possibly affects their own self-awareness of their performance, let alone awareness of the road situation). And there’s the practical implications, like how drivers will be more willing to engage in these activities if they don’t see them as a problem – also relevant to drink, drugs, fatigue, and any number of driver impairments.

The story focuses on in-car distractions, but it’s also piqued my interest in outside distractions to – relevant to a study I conducted on roadside advertising in our driving simulator at Brunel, which has just been published in Transportation Research Part F. I was stunned by the impact this study had with people on both sides of the argument – safety campaigners and advertising professionals alike – and the preliminary report I produced has been widely circulated while the paper was in the publication process. In fact, the advertising industry commissioned an “independent” report specifically to discredit my report, which mainly criticised the study on the grounds it hadn’t been peer-reviewed (which it has now) and that it was conducted in a simulator (which I defended in the paper). I should probably be upset that they commissioned this report, but it’s actually faintly amusing that they took the study so seriously.

Anyway, I see a clear link from this to the Liberty Mutual findings about awareness of distractions. Advertising, by its nature, is designed to attract attention – almost without us knowing it, otherwise it hasn’t done its job. So it’s a double-whammy if drivers are unwillingly being distracted, and then being unaware of how that’s affected their driving. But it’s not just that – if there’s an intuitive belief that distractions such as advertising don’t seem so bad, then it means there’s an even more pressing need for hard quantitative data to close the case.

1 comment:

  1. I rather like the São Paulo approach