Curbing driver distraction

Over three quarters of road traffic accidents result from some kind of distraction. This can be cut.

By Morand Fachot

Driver distraction is not new; it is as old as driving. Driving is a complex task that requires constant attention and complex coordination between mind and body. International Standards should help reduce driver distraction.

Texting while driving is a major factor of driver distraction... and accidents Texting while driving is a major factor of driver distraction... and accidents

Drivers are confronted with four main types of distraction:

  • Physical/Manual: Taking hands off the wheel to manually operate controls or devices, or to perform other tasks, such as eating, drinking or smoking.
  • Visual: Taking the eyes off the road to look at something else, such as a screen or map. (Visual and physical distractions are often closely linked.)
  • Auditory: Focusing on acoustic events not related to driving.
  • Cognitive: Taking the mind off the road, being occupied by tasks not related to driving.

Old problem, new distractions

In recent years many so-called nomadic devices, such as personal entertainment systems or mobile phones, have been brought into the vehicle environment for communication, entertainment or even as driving aids. If used while driving they may combine physical, visual, auditory and cognitive forms of distraction, in particular when they are not directly driving-related. They reduce situational awareness and raise the incidence of driver distraction.

Even some devices like satellite navigation systems designed to make driving easier are not always conceived or operated with sufficient care to prevent driver distraction.

Portable navigation devices, if designed and used properly, can have a positive impact as they allow drivers to pay more attention to surrounding traffic and reach their destination more directly.

Fatal distraction

The reasons for traffic accidents vary from country to country depending on a number of factors. But a study from the US (United States) NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and the VTTI (Virginia Tech Transportation Institute) indicates that 80 % of crashes and 65 % of near-crashes include some form of driver distraction.

Of the 5 474 people killed in accidents on US roads in 2009 because of driver distraction, at least 18 % involved reports of a mobile telephone as a contributing factor. The proportion of fatalities reportedly associated with driver distraction increased from 10 % in 2005 to 16 % between 2005 and 2009. Other countries with comparable car ownership patterns report similar findings.

Advanced mobile communication services pose an even more acute risk of driver distraction. Not just drivers but some companies are offering ways to use devices for which they were not intended by manufacturers, and which could lead to increased driver distraction. While the "iPad Steering Wheel Mount" might be great for when the vehicle is stationary, one might question its use when driving, even if it is described by its designer as "a great enhancement to safety".

International Standards to reduce driver distraction

It is estimated that some 40 % of a vehicle's cost base is now accounted for by its electrical power and electronics control systems. This share is likely to increase further in coming years with the general introduction of new technologies like ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance System), which includes functions such as blind spot detection, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and automatic braking.

The IEC, through many of its TCs (Technical Committees), prepares International Standards for all electrical and electronic components and systems used in motor vehicles. These include not just cables, connectors and batteries, but also sensors, LEDs (light-emitting diode) and OLEDs (organic light-emitting diode) for displays, head-up displays and lighting, and new control systems, to name just a few.

Together with its two global sister organizations, ISO (International Organization for Standardization) and ITU (International Telecommunication Union), the IEC helps the automotive industry and equipment manufacturers reduce driver distraction with standards and design guidelines for ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) systems used in motor vehicles

The importance attached by the three organizations to the driver distraction issue was highlighted by the "Managing driver distraction" technical session they organized as part of their sixth Fully Networked Car workshop at the 2011 Geneva International Motor Show, 2-3 March in Geneva, Switzerland.

Speakers and participants at the session — who included key players in the development of technologies and standards and experts and executives from the car industry, the ICT community, R&D (research and development) institutes and other organizations — reviewed a number of new applications. Hands-free communication, speech-based services — speech prompts, audio and visual alerts, dialogue systems and communication services — superior sound quality and intelligibility, and telematics applications that may help reduce driver distraction if properly implemented were extensively discussed at the session.

Responsible driving and use of technology

Technology has always played a significant role in improving road safety and reducing the number of accident-related fatalities. However, the fairly recent introduction in the driving environment of the new so-called nomadic devices, for communication, entertainment or even as driving aids, has resulted in a sharp increase in the incidence of driver distraction and associated deaths and injuries.

Driver distraction can and should be curbed. If International Standards have an important role to play in helping design and produce relevant systems and devices, the greatest advance in curbing driving distraction will be achieved through responsible driving and the sensible use of new technologies in the driving environment.

"...and who's driving?", German road safety agency poster (2002) "...and who's driving?", German road safety agency poster (2002)
Texting while driving is a major factor of driver distraction... and accidents Texting while driving is a major factor of driver distraction... and accidents
Tablet steering wheel mount Tablet steering wheel mount