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In car distractions compromise road safety

Are we being driven to distraction by in car technology?

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Delegates attending the 2013 Automotive Forum, organised by the Irish Motoring Writers Association (IMWA) and sponsored by Continental Tyres, were given a glimpse of some of the new and emerging automotive technologies that will soon be a key feature of the cars we drive.
Just imagine your car communicating with the road infrastructure and other road users to warn you about traffic jams or an accident up ahead; then imagine being able to stream music and video material from the internet through your car’s audio-visual system and being able to consult apps from the dashboard that provide information about restaurants, hotels or shopping options on your drive route.
However, what of the distraction potential for drivers who are facing information overload in this brave new world of motoring?
An audience from motoring, road safety and other sectors came together today at the RDS in Dublin to hear two expert international speakers talk about how car technology is changing the role of the driver and how increasing levels of technology in the car can have a detrimental effect on drivers’ attention levels.
Associate Professor at the University of Leeds-based Institute for Transport Studies, Dr. Natasha Merat, who specialises in human machine interface (HMI) and driver behaviour highlighted the results of recent studies that have shown that once a driver’s primary attention is diverted by another information input, whether that be a mobile phone or a piece of technology within the car, the risk of an accident increases significantly.
“Without a doubt, technology has contributed hugely to strides in improving road safety over the last number of decades, but we need to be careful that we don’t undo some of that progress by providing a dangerous level of information overload through the addition of a broad range of ‘attention-grabbing’ technologies inside the car”, said Dr. Merat. “We know that younger, inexperienced drivers are particularly prone to distractions while driving whether they come from in-car distractions or external influences.  And for both experienced and inexperienced drivers, the distraction level can increase significantly once other impairments come into play, e.g. when a driver is showing any signs of fatigue”.
“It is important that we realise that the term ‘distraction’ encompasses more than just the ‘usual suspects’ of e.g. mobile phone, changing music on the sound system or mp3 player, and satnavs.  Chimes and dashboard displays that warn about low fuel, lane departure warning / brake assist systems and best eco-driving behaviour, can all take their toll on the driver’s attention.  The challenge for car makers is to ensure that all of these technologies work together to assist with the driving task, rather than distracting the driver’s attention.”
The other keynote speaker was Pim van der Jagt, Managing Director of Ford of Europe’s Research Centre, Aachen, and among his contributions to the Forum he said: “I don’t deny that distractions behind the wheel, however they are caused, either by technology / devices within the car or external influences, can be a serious risk to road safety overall.  However, as part of the process of developing new automotive technologies, we are always conscious of how each new development fits into the overall picture of the driver behind the wheel.  A sine qua non of all of our research and development activity is that new technology has to contribute to improving the driver experience and consequently, road safety.  Any technology that does not pass this test would fall at this first hurdle and would not be developed further for use in cars.”
“It is amazing how blasé we have become about automotive technology, in particular, the fact that now even some of the smallest cars have technologies that up until a couple of years ago could only be enjoyed by a small number of drivers as they were the preserve of the more expensive luxury brands.  For example, now popular mainstream cars like the Ford Focus, thanks to Active Park Assist technology, can park themselves into tight parking spots with minimal input from the driver”.
“In terms of new technologies that motorists will see in the near term, we will see the roll out of a range of services based upon a two-way vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication system which will enable cars to communicate with each other about driving and traffic conditions. Using a dedicated short-range communications network, the system will also be able to communicate with similarly equipped vehicles that are out of the driver’s line of sight – for example, if a car suddenly performs an emergency stop procedure around a corner, cars coming behind could be informed in good time so that they can adapt their speed before they arrive at the scene.  I believe that innovations such as this will be a welcome boost for road safety overall and will certainly help to concentrate the driver’s attention towards immediate dangers”.
“In perhaps 10 to 15 years, in addition to vehicle-to-vehicle communications, there will be a widespread use of vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication whereby our cars will be able to communicate with the road infrastructure and traffic management systems with the aim of making journeys as smooth and as quick as possible and with the overall aim of reducing emissions and fuel consumption.  There is currently an ongoing test project in the US where a 73 mile stretch of highway is equipped with a range of roadside installations that communicate with specially equipped vehicles and this year-long project will provide much valuable data as the system is developed for more widespread use.”
Gerry Murphy, Chairman, Irish Motoring Writers Association, who moderated the Forum discussion, said: “The presentations from our keynote speakers were very interesting and we thank them for bringing the benefit of their expertise to the motoring public in Ireland.  To answer the question that was our point of departure for the Forum, I think the driver is ultimately responsible for ensuring he or she manages and limits the distraction potential of technology and any other external influences that would divert their attention from the important task at hand”.
Tom Dennigan, of sponsor Continental Tyres, welcomed the forum as “a valuable event that helps to spread knowledge and promote discussion in relation to motoring and its wider implications for our society. Today’s debate was very much in keeping with that mission.”

John Galvin
+ posts

Motoring editor - The Clare Champion

Former Chairman and voting member of Irish Motoring Writers' Association

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