Drivers don’t need much to be distracted, researchers say

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Courtesy of USA TODAY:

Drivers don’t need to be texting or talking on cellphones to be distracted enough to possibly get in trouble on the road, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are finding.

The researchers say if a motorist’s mind is deeply focused on any topic — even trouble at home — they are likely to scan the road for hazards less frequently.

As automakers and federal road safety officials debate new guidelines for devices in cars that can distract drivers, the MIT team already is studying the next front of distracted driving: how a driver’s eyes can be directed toward the road but their mind focused elsewhere.

The group, led by Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT’s AgeLab, found that a driver’s ability to focus on the driving environment varies depending on the “cognitive demand” of a non-driving activity. That is, the deeper the level of thought in a driver’s mind, the less he focuses on his surroundings.

Good drivers routinely scan the road ahead and around them, looking for potential hazards that they might need to react to. When drivers face even light levels of cognitive demand, they scan the road less, Reimer says.

“In the past, the emphasis was on whether you’re distracted or not distracted,” he says. “This is too simple of a categorization. There are levels of cognitive demand, and those levels are statistically distinguishable.

“The level of thought going on has a relationship to how much a driver is aware of the driving environment,” he says.

The research, published last month in Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, comes as automakers and transportation officials meet in Washington this week on whether smartphone and portable GPS makers should be included in federal efforts to combat driver distraction.

The MIT team studied 108 volunteers in three age ranges — 20-29, 40-49 and 60-69 — driving a midsize sport utility vehicle on Route 93 north of Boston while they were given low-, medium- and high-demand cognitive tasks.

In the easy task, drivers were given a series of single-digit numbers, 0-9, and asked to repeat aloud each as it was given. In the medium-demand task, participants were asked to repeat the number given a digit earlier in the sequence; for the high-demand task, the number given two digits earlier.

“Even the easy task reduces the amount you’re scanning,” Reimer says. “You’re scanning the road a little less. At the medium- and high-demand level, you’re scanning even less. It’s called a loss of situational awareness. At the low level, you’re less aware. At medium and high levels, you’re even less aware.”

It’s a common phenomenon on the modern roads: A driver is talking on a hands-free cellphone and driving perfectly straight — but slower than the flow of traffic. Reimer says that distracted drivers, who are focused on the road ahead but not on the surrounding environment, actually drive straighter but have been shown to react slower to a car braking in front of them.

A fascinating insight: Researchers found no age difference in scanning patterns.

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