EMF Health-effects Research

Turning gap acceptance decision-making: the impact of driver distraction.

Cooper PJ, Zheng Y

J Safety Res 33(3):321-335, 2002

PROBLEM: A number of studies have found that use of in-car phones by drivers can interfere with the cognitive processing necessary for making appropriate and timely vehicle control decisions. However, the specific linkage between communication-based distraction and unsafe decision-making has not been sufficiently explored.

METHOD: In a closed-course driving experiment, 39 subjects were exposed to approximately 100 gaps each in a circulating traffic stream of eight vehicles on an instrumented test track that was wet about half the time. The subjects were at the controls of an instrumented car, which was oriented in a typical left-turn configuration (traffic-crossing situation in North America) and with parking brake on and the transmission in neutral. The subjects were instructed to press on the accelerator pedal when they felt that a gap was safe to accept. Their performances were monitored and incentives were provided for balancing safe decision-making with expeditious completion of the task. For half of the gap exposures (randomly assigned), each subject was required to listen and respond to a complex verbal message.

RESULTS: When not distracted, the subjects' gap acceptance judgment was found to be significantly influenced by their age, the gap size, the speed of the trailing vehicle, the level of "indecision," and the condition of the track surface. However, when distracted, the subjects did not factor pavement surface condition into the decision process. On wet pavement, the subjects were judged to have initiated twice the level of potential collisions when distracted by the messages that they did when not distracted.

DISCUSSION: Listening/responding to verbal messages may reduce the capacity of drivers to process adequately all the important information necessary for safe decision-making. The effects of the messages in our study seemed to cause the subjects to misjudge gap size and speed information when operating under the additional disadvantage of adverse pavement condition.

SUMMARY: Attention to complex messages while making decisions about turning through gaps in an on-coming vehicle stream was associated with significantly increased unsafe decision making by subjects in our experiment when the additional complexity of wet surface condition was introduced.

IMPACT ON INDUSTRY: While the results reflected a somewhat artificial situation where the measure was signaled intention to act rather than the act itself, nevertheless, they do strongly suggest a scenario in which mental distraction could contribute to crash risk. With the rapid proliferation of telematics in the vehicle market, even with the laudable objectives represented by the Intelligent Transportation Systems initiative, there is a danger of the primary task of the driver being subordinated to a perceived need to enhance information flow to/from the external "world." Industry and governments need to work together to ensure that apparently desirable in-vehicle communication improvements do not compromise safety.

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