All of us are susceptible to attention lapses, and they can range from minor annoyances like losing your focus on a book you are reading to making mistakes in figures you are adding or forgetting that you left a pot boiling on the stove until you smell something burning.
But attention lapses while driving a car are always dangerous, and are becoming more so now in vehicles equipped with infotainment systems with multiple displays.
Much of what the driver sees in these displays is categorized as “driver aids”. They include maps for navigation, automobile engine status, weather information, distance to destination, and a camera view of the road behind you. Sometimes there is a cellphone built in, adding yet another display, or an attachment that projects a smartphone display in a vehicle's front window so you can drive and check your email at the same time. But few of them help you to keep your attention where it should be: driving and traffic conditions.And all it takes is a few seconds and sometimes much less to find yourself in trouble. Think about it: An automobile weighing anywhere from 700 to 1,200 pounds at a minimum, traveling at 60 miles an hour translates into 80 feet/second. Even on a lightly traveled freeway most cars travel closer to the car ahead than that 80 feet. And vehicles in the next lane are only a matter of five to ten feet away. Not a lot of room to avoid serious problems in the second or two (and often much less) that you have to take action.
That there have not been more vehicle deaths and serious injuries associated with such “improvements” I think is due mainly to the strengthening of the vehicle frame and the electronics built into the engine and auto body framework.
Better late than never, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2010 initiated a program to take a closer look at the problem of distracted driving. One of the results was a set of guidelines in 2013 with recommendations to follow, including:
- The distraction induced by any secondary task performed while driving should not exceed that associated with a baseline reference task such as manual radio tuning.
- Any task performed by a driver should be interruptible at any time.
- The driver, not the system/device, should control the pace of task interactions
- Displays should be easy for the driver to see and content presented should be easily discernible
Risk factors due to information overload in modern automotive infotainment subsystems.
(Source: U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA))
But even these relatively modest recommendations are unevenly deployed, and where followed are open to broad interpretation.
The NHTSA also recommended that tasks/devices not suitable for use while driving should be locked out from the driver's control, including device functions and tasks not intended to be used by a driver while driving, such as manual text entry and smartphone and network activities such as texting, chatting, and internet browsing; displaying video and images, and scrolling text. It also recommended locking out the display of books and social media content.
However, on the various business trips where I have used rental cars, I have not seen any cars with the sort of “lock-outs" talked about in the report. And therein lies one of the weaknesses of the recommendations: they do not have the force of law. Another is how little attention is paid to our ability to do multitasking and task-switching in an automotive environment.
Eyes on the road
We humans are good at multitasking, which is the ability to handle a mix of unrelated actions at the same time. When you eat your dinner while simultaneously carrying on a conversation and listening to music in the background, you are multitasking.
But we are terrible at task-switching. This occurs when you redirect your attention and cognitive energies from one task that requires total attention to another unrelated task that also requires total or near-total attention. When you are driving and shift your attention to the infotainment navigation display, you are less able to notice and react to changes in traffic: a stoppage of traffic ahead, a pedestrian stepping into the street, or a car that switches lanes in front of you.
One cognitive researcher who has looked hard and long at switch-tasking in particular is Clifford Nass of Stanford University, initially in the context of mobile phone users, particularly teenagers. He found that a majority of teens are routinely using three or more media at one time, even while driving a vehicle.
Nass found that as a result of such switch-tasking they had profound problems related to the ability to filter information, manage working memory, and difficulties in switching from one task to another. Each of these deficits had enormous implications for mobile phone users when driving under both normal and complex circumstances.
Concerned about the proliferation of electronic devices to distract drivers, Nass recently started a lab at Stanford that focuses on how the information environment in the car can lead to a series of “attractive nuisances” that undermine driving performance. This includes not only the entertainment systems, but the warning systems, navigation systems, and other aids and how those varying tasks and sources of content are managed or mismanaged by drivers.
It will be interesting to see what the lab comes up with. From my personal perspective, these things are not being managed very well, either by the drivers or the auto makers who continue to ignore even the NTSA's modest recommendations. Until more research emerges and more common sense is applied by manufacturers, I have taken a minimalist approach.
I own an old car that has no infotainment aids, forcing me to keep my eyes on the road and my mind on driving. It might not be as much fun as driving with an infotainment system installed, but I have much more confidence that I’ll get where I’m going in one piece.