October 24, 2014 / 7:30 PM / 5 years ago

Showing cell phone callers the road might improve driver safety

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Providing a caller with views of the driver and the road ahead might reduce cell phone distraction for the driver, suggests a new study.

Researchers used a driving simulator and video phones to examine how a driver’s conversation partner – either on the phone or in the car – could affect their safety on the road.

At any given time, about 5 percent of drivers in the U.S. are using their cell phones, but the devices are cited as a cause of distraction in 18 percent of crashes, say the authors.

“For a number of years, we’ve been thinking about ‘how might we make a cell phone partner - that is someone who is speaking to a driver who might be using legally a hands free cell phone . . . more like a passenger’,” Arthur Kramer told Reuters Health in an email.

Kramer, who led the study, is director of the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Because we know in the great majority of studies, the passengers, at least adult passengers who are drivers themselves, tend to be useful to drivers - it’s another pair of eyes, and experienced eyes, if it’s another driver,” he said.

Kramer said he and his colleagues thought it might be interesting to give the conversation partner at home or in a different location similar information to what a passenger sitting in the car would have, using a video-capable smartphone.

“And that’s what we did – we provided essentially a split screen video of the driver’s face and outside the windscreen,” Kramer said.

Kramer and his team designed the study to see if the video information could make the conversation partner more like a passenger.

They enrolled 48 college students who had two or more years of driving experience and set up four driving scenarios: the driver alone in the simulator, the driver speaking to a passenger who was also in the simulator, the driver speaking on a hands-free cell phone to someone in a different location and the driver speaking on a hands-free cell phone to someone who could see the driver and the driving scene out the front windshield with a video phone.

Having a regular cell-phone conversation tripled the risk of collision compared to driving alone, and doubled the risk when compared with driving with a passenger or talking on the phone to a person who could see the driver and the road ahead.

Interestingly, the study team notes in Psychological Science, drivers were least likely to remember which road signs they had seen when they drove alone as compared to having a passenger or being on either type of cell-phone call.

The researchers also analyzed conversations between the drivers and either the passenger or the callers.

“We found when the individuals at home or somewhere else had the split screen video they behaved, in terms of how they used language, more like the passenger,” Kramer said. “That is, they were able to stop speaking when they perceived the driver was being busy.”

He added that cell phone partners with video would also reference driving events such as bicyclists or cars in close proximity, much like a passenger normally would.

Kramer is cautiously optimistic, but still thinks talking on a cell phone while driving – even hands free - is “a stupid thing to do.” He also isn’t sure the video technology would be helpful for teens who might just find it more of a distraction.

“I don’t want to encourage more people to use the cell phone when they’re driving but since it is indeed legal in every state in the United States, this could be one way to reduce accidents,” he said.

The study was only a simulation, so it’s not clear how the technology would impact drivers in the real world.

Arthur Goodwin, a researcher with the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina, thinks it’s an intriguing study that also provides information on how passengers might be helpful for drivers.

Studies show that adult drivers “are less likely to be involved in a crash if they have a passenger with them, but we don’t necessarily know why that’s the case,” Goodwin, who wasn’t involved in the new study, told Reuters Health.

“These findings suggest that passengers do pay attention to what drivers are doing and will adjust their own behavior accordingly, either by mentioning things that might be happening on the roadway or perhaps talking a little bit less than they normally would compared to somebody else who’s on a cell phone,” Goodwin said.

SOURCE: bit.ly/1vnE95L Psychological Science, online October 8, 2104.

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