Distracted driving is a major cause of injuries and deaths in traffic accidents, according to the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration. Cell phone conversations specifically are among the most prominent sources of distraction. Despite that, drivers young and old continue to take and place calls. But according to a new study, there's one way to alleviate (though not eliminate) the risk: include video, so the person on the other end can see what the driver sees.
In response to growing concerns over the use of mobile phones while behind the wheel, a number of states have banned calls in the car without a hands-free device, and 37 states have banned cell phone use by young drivers. Proponents of such laws have a point, as distractions of some kind were responsible for accidents resulting in about 3,300 deaths and 380,000 injuries, according to NHTSA statistics. Meanwhile, there's a clear link between distraction and cell phone use while driving, though exactly how distracting a call is—and whether there's a way to ameliorate the problem without banning all use—remains controversial.
John Gaspar, Kyle Mathewson, and colleagues at the University of Illinois are stepping into the mix with a novel idea: to help drivers focus on the road, show the people they're talking with what those drivers see.
Now, John Gaspar, Kyle Mathewson, and colleagues at the University of Illinois are stepping into the mix with a novel idea: to help drivers focus on the road, show the people they're talking with what those drivers see. Researchers set up 24 pairs of friends from around Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, in a driving simulator and put each pair through four scenarios. In one, the baseline condition, drivers were alone in the simulator and had no conversations. In the remaining three, the driver and her friend told each other stories about trips the other hadn't been on, either while a passenger in the driving simulator, by a voice-only cell phone call, or by a cell phone call with in which the driver's friend saw the driver's face as well as a view of the road. As a result, partners could react if something dangerous happened. To ensure that something dangerous did happen, the experimenters programmed simulated cars to cut off the driver or brake suddenly while driving ahead, all while keeping track of the number of collisions that ensued.
While the presence and method of the cell phone call had no clear effect on collisions, video calls cut the frequency of collisions to 3.4 per hundred "merging events," as the team labeled being cut off. That's about half the frequency they saw with voice-only calls—about 6.5 per hundred sudden merges—and roughly twice the frequency for those driving alone and not engaged in a call. The reason? Friends spoke in shorter sentences and talked more about traffic when they were in the car or could see video of what was happening.
"This suggests that access to views of the driving scene led to greater situational awareness," the authors write, allowing drivers' friends to act as a kind of collision-warning system. Drivers shouldn't talk on the phone, but they likely will, and using a special sort of video phone might at least reduce the number of accidents that result.