January 1, 2008 — Human factors researchers test drivers to measure the risks of driving while distracted. The researchers control the environment by adding turns and changing road conditions, all the while measuring the driver's performance. They use brain wave patterns and heart activity to study the drivers' attention when behind the wheel.
Distracted drivers are all over the roads. It's estimated that 25 percent of car accidents are due to some form of distraction while driving. Now, a simulated driver course could help make roads safer.
Experienced drivers are 'fessing up. Guilty of multi-tasking while driving! "I don't like to use the telephone, however, I do occasionally," Don Mirielees told Ivanhoe.
But wireless devices aren't the worst driving distractions. Psychologists say there are bigger offenders.
"We can be distracted by operating the radio, we can be distracted by passenger conversations, we can be distracted by events in the environment," Richard Backs, Ph.D., psychologist at Central Michigan University told Ivanhoe.
Any kind of disruption can make driving dangerous. Now, human factors researchers are using a new driving simulator to test the attention of older drivers -- who are especially at risk for an accident when distracted.
"We can manipulate the environment in ways that produce situations in which older adults typically have problems, like making left hand turns into traffic, or merging onto the freeway," Dr. Backs said.
In the simulator, a driver sees a realistic virtual-reality driving environment. Researchers control what the driver sees, by adding turns, different road conditions or speeding cars. Researchers can then track and record a driver's performance.
"We can replay their performance in the simulator. The driver can actually see how they did and hopefully learn from that," Dr. Backs said.
Using the simulator, researchers hope to learn more about the older population's driving abilities, and provide education to improve safety.
"These older adults are going to want to continue driving for as long as they possibly can, our goal is to help them drive safely," Dr. Backs said.
THE PHYSICS OF TRAFFIC: Conventional scientific wisdom compares traffic jams to the process of freezing, where a flowing liquid turns into a solid. On a sparsely populated highway the cars are far apart and can move at whatever speed they choose while freely moving between lanes -- much like the molecules in a gas. In heavier traffic, the cars are more densely packed with less room to maneuver, so cars move at slower average speeds and traffic behaves more like a liquid. If the cars become too densely packed, their speed is reduced, and their movement restricted, to such an extent that they almost stop moving altogether and form a "solid" expanse of traffic -- "freezing" into ice.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.