May 2011 ARCCSI Conference

May 22, 2011 by

This May I attended this year’s ARC-CSI conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. Monday was spent at the track crashing cars into each other (seven crashes, including two Toyotas), and Tuesday – Thursday was spent in presentations on various accident reconstruction topics plus analysis of Monday’s staged crashes.

As usual, the presentations were excellent. Much of it was so specialized as to not be of interest to most of our readers, but there were a couple of tidbits that I think are worth passing on.

In particular, I’ll summarize parts of a talk entitled “What happens when a novice driver backs a car while on the cell phone and enters the path of a motorcyclist?”

The title was somewhat tongue in cheek, but the topic was training, focus, and distraction in driving. Several research papers were referenced (some written by the presenters). There were two parts of the talk that I’ll focus on here, novice driver research and mobile telephone use.

According to the presenters, the problem with novice drivers is that we teach them rules and laws, but not skills. Both novice drivers and drunk drivers share a reduced focal width for a narrowed visual search pattern and a corresponding overcorrecting or weaving driving style. Novices are not taught to anticipate hazards that are not yet visible. Potential hazards give the experienced driver a half second reaction time advantage over the younger novice driver with faster reaction times.

According to the research, drivers (whether novice or experienced) who look away from the road ahead for more than two seconds in a six second period have a 300% greater crash rate (and that two seconds does not need to be a single event) than those who do not look away for any two seconds in six. This has huge implications for every driver. Whether you are adjusting the radio, texting on your Blackberry, reading a map, looking at your passenger in conversation, fishing for something in the console, dialing your cell phone, putting on makeup, taking the cover off your drink, reading the paper, adjusting the wrapper on your Big Mac, fiddling with the GPS-it doesn’t matter. If you take your eyes off the road for any two seconds in a six second period, you are three times more likely to crash. Two seconds of distraction in six seconds is all it takes to triple your potential crash rate.

Additionally, when you look to the side, your response time increases by about a quarter second for every ten degrees, up to 50 degrees. So a 30 degree glance to the side will take 3/4 of a second to return to a frontal gaze.

Novice drivers fail to anticipate hazards, because they lack the experience to realize what might be hiding outside their view, and they haven’t been trained to anticipate those hazards. The presenter’s dissertation was on risk mitigation, and his acronym was ACT, Anticipate, Control, Terminate. For potential hazards whose time until collision is greater than six seconds, the correct reaction sequence is anticipatory glances, then buffer space, then off throttle, and then on the brake to prevent accidents. For immediate hazards, brake hard if in doubt and steer with moderation. The #1 cause of death in ages 16-24 is the single vehicle off road accident (first under-braking and then over-steering). A foot covering the brake reduces perception reaction time by about four tenths of a second. You should look first for what you might hit, and then second, you look for what might hit you. In contrast to the experienced driver, the novice driver, when mentally overloaded, vacillates in making a decision, which creates the “wagging foot of indecision”, further decreasing the available time to take appropriate action to prevent the accident. In speed management, the novice driver tends to maintain a steady speed in situations where the experienced driver would slow down. A lane width reduction, a curve in the road, roadside vehicles, road construction ahead, these are all cues that are missed by the novice driver.

Switching to cell phone use research, the presenter referenced a study that put the participants in a driving simulator (real car controls, watching three panoramic computer screens) and tested their performance with and without a “cell phone” conversation. First the subjects drove through a computer generated highway construction zone simulation where the driver had to deal with merging traffic, construction workers near the edge, heavy equipment slowing traffic ahead, and a pickup truck pulling onto the road in front of the driver, forcing a stop. For the “cell phone” conversation while driving in the simulator, the participants listened to a series of short sentences and then answered back if the sentence made sense or not and what the last word of the sentence was (The cat is brown. Answer, yes, brown. The door drove paper. Answer, no, paper). And the results…?

They did significantly worse while talking on the phone compared to not talking on the phone. This was a handsfree situation, which demonstrates that hands free cell phone use is not the solution to the talking on the phone distraction/attention problem. Experience or practice did not improve their performance while on the phone. While on the phone the drivers had a significantly narrower visual sweep of vision, and correspondingly, they frequently failed to react to the hazards on the side of the road. Lacking focus on their driving, they crashed. In contrast, listening to the radio or listening to books on tape did not degrade their performance.

One observation the researchers made was that most people tended to talk faster while on the phone than if they were talking to someone beside them, apparently part of the “Can you hear me now?” effect. We tend to want to say as much as possible, in as short a time as possible, in anticipation of a dropped call. So what happened if they had someone in the car talking to them instead of being on the phone? The answer to the question of performance while in a conversation with a passenger depends upon the age of the driver. Less than 21 and you have greatly degraded performance, which supports the graduated licensing of minors (so don’t let your 16 year old drive with other teenagers because they will distract the driver from focusing on the road). For older drivers, the presence of a passenger actually improves performance, in that in some measure the passenger acts as a co-pilot watching for clues and relaying information to the driver that might be helpful, without being a distraction. Novice drivers just don’t shift their focus from the conversation to a potential emergency when they should.

The speaker pointed out that human beings are good at some things and bad at others. We have a hard time judging closing speeds. This is a human limitation, which is not the same thing as a human error. Human errors are caused when we ignore our limitations, like driving under the influence, or trying to attend to multiple inputs. Both of these result in being guided by ambient cues, not focal cues. The flood of inputs we receive while driving is just noise (and is ignored) or worse (a distraction), unless the cues are properly evaluated. Then that information must be used to take timely action (coast, swerve, or brake) to avoid a crash.

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