Driver distraction is a major cause of car accidents.

But the truth is most distractions can be found right in the car with the driver.

The cockpit design of cars has changed drastically over the years with a shift to more interactive features and functions such as touch screen displays and Apple CarPlay, says Professor Michael Regan, from UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering

“While these are meant to enhance the driving experience, they can often be a distraction for the driver,” he said.

“Research has shown that approximately 70 per cent of distractions are within the vehicle.

“Actions such as selecting radio stations with touchscreen displays, entering destinations into navigation systems or even reaching for something in the glove box while the vehicle is in motion — are all distractions and pose a huge risk to the driver.

“If you take your eyes off the road for two seconds, it’s been shown that you double your risk of a collision. Any longer than two seconds, and the risk of a crash increases exponentially.

“As vehicle cockpits inherit more functionality and become more interactive, we need to ensure the driver’s safety is not compromised.”

Professor Regan is a psychologist specialising in transportation human factors and works in the UNSW Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation (RCITI).

He says driver, vehicle design and traffic signs are the three biggest causes of distractions on the road.

He says traffic control devices, including destination signs, warning signs and traffic lights, need to be designed from a human-centred perspective to be effective.

For any traffic control device to be effective, it should have three key features: it should be conspicuous, legible and the message itself must be comprehensible.

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Professor Regan says when a traffic light or sign lacks one or more of these characteristics, it can instead become a distraction.

“Some traffic lights or signs aren’t obvious to drivers because they’re hidden behind a tree or there’s something blocking it,” he says.

“This encourages drivers to adopt compensatory visual scanning strategies to try to see them, which takes their eyes off the road for longer than is necessary.

“To capture the attention of the driver, signs must not have anything obstructing the messaging, so that it is visible to the driver – and the messaging must be crystal clear.

The Australian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) awards star ratings for a vehicle’s ability to protect the occupants in the event of a crash.

A higher rating is awarded for vehicles with active safety systems, such as autonomous emergency braking, which assist the driver in preventing or minimising the effects of a crash with pedestrians, cyclists, or vehicles.

Professor Regan said a similar system needs to be developed to rate how safe the design of roads are from a human-centred perspective.

“Some drivers may choose to drive on certain roads which are rated safer than others because, among other things, they know they will contain signs and signals that are conspicuous, legible and comprehensible, meaning they are less likely to become confused and distracted.

“It’s very clear that people value safety when it comes to purchasing a new car, but safety shouldn’t stop there, it should include our road system too.

“These are just a small few of the many human-centred issues that would need to be considered in rating our roads.”

In a perfect world all road and transport environments will be designed from a human-centred perspective to minimise human error and optimise safety.

But at the end of the day, Professor Regan said humans will still be prone to conditions that may degrade driving performance and safety.

“Road users who are cognitively distracted – for example, when talking on their mobile phone about something complex or emotional — may see a traffic light change colour but not respond to it.”

“That’s what we call intentional blindness, it’s the look-but-fail-to-see phenomenon, and it’s an issue for drivers and pedestrians too.

“Drivers and other road users will continue to be prone to distraction, fatigue and other human conditions.

“However, there is much that can be done, through good human-centred design, to enhance their safety and prevent crashes.”

 

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Too many distractions for drivers

Riley

Chris Riley has been a journalist for almost 40 years. He has spent half of his career as a writer, editor and production editor in newspapers, the rest of the time driving and writing about cars both in print and online. His love affair with cars began as a teenager with the purchase of an old VW Beetle, followed by another Beetle and a string of other cars on which he has wasted too much time and money. A self-confessed geek, he’s not afraid to ask the hard questions - at the risk of sounding silly.
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