How's My Driving? Ask My Car

Using gadgets while you're driving can be a very bad thing, but an expert on automotive distractions says using a gadget that watches you while you're driving can be a very good thing.

"People don't always understand the degree of distraction they may be exposing themselves to ... so the idea is to help people understand that distraction by providing them with feedback," John D. Lee, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Iowa, said Thursday.

Lee outlines the magnitude of the problem in an essay published in this week's issue of the journal Science: More than 40,000 people die every year in motor vehicle crashes, and research indicates that failures of attention - including distractions or drowsiness - probably played a role in most of those crashes.

Crashes and near-crashes are about three times as likely to happen when the driver is performing a complex task not related to driving (such as dialing a phone or even texting), and twice as likely during a moderately complex task (such as inserting a CD), Lee reported.

As new technologies are introduced, the list of potential distractions keeps getting longer. Questions have been raised about dashboard GPS navigation devices, for example, as well as "green" energy-monitoring displays.

Of course, most drivers overestimate their own abilities: In one survey, 88 percent of the respondents judged themselves to be safer than the average driver. And Lee said his own camera-monitoring research has shown that teen drivers in particular "don't notice what they don't notice."

In one case he studied, a driver looked away from the road for 6 seconds to tap out a text message on her phone, slipped out of her lane and came to attention only when the tires hit the curb. "When she actually saw the video from the perspective of the camera, she was shocked to learn that she almost hit a telephone pole at 40 miles per hour," Lee said.

So how does watching the driver help? Lee's method was to install a special camera system  that saves video snippets for the 10 seconds before and after every abrupt movement on the road.

"We took that video, put it on a CD, and then we had a 'report card' that shows the number of events that the teen driver experienced over time," he said. "It had a pretty dramatic effect on teens, in terms of the frequency of these abrupt steering and braking events that are often associated with distractions."

After the feedback sessions, the number of events triggered by risky drivers declined 89 percent, Lee said, and the rate of risky driving remained low even six weeks later.

After-the-fact monitoring systems are being used to check up on motor-fleet drivers as well as teenagers, and Lee told me it won't be long before real-time monitors show up as well. "There are video cameras that are being developed and actually being put into cars - high-end Toyota and Volvo models, for example. [They're] video-based face-tracking systems that tell whether the driver is looking at the road or looking into the car," he said.

Such a feature, sometimes known as a drowsiness warning system, would likely be wrapped up as an optional package with other advanced safety features such as forward collision avoidance, side collision warning and blindspot detection, Lee said. Among the oft-used catchphrases for these technologies is "intelligent transportation system" or "intelligent vehicle technology."

Japan's Nissan Motor Co. even suggested that future cars could automatically sound an alarm and release "a stimulating mint fragrance" if they sense that the driver is dozing off.

Can a car become too smart for our own good? Computerized car-trackers already can record when and how far you're driving - as well as how many abrupt stops and starts you put your car through. Some insurance companies are offering discounts for drivers who use the tracking devices, but privacy watchdogs worry that this sort of thing could eventually turn Big Brother into a back-seat driver.

"Obviously there are issues of privacy that come into play as you collect these data about drivers," Lee said. "I think about that, but I really haven't studied that in detail."

Instead, Lee is focusing on technologies that will help drivers help themselves. "Having your car know a little bit more about you and your behavior might well be worth it in terms of the number of lives saved," he said.

This report originally was published as a Cosmic Log item.

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