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Are Stoners Really Safer Drivers Than People Texting or Using Touch Screens?


The 2014 Chevrolet ImpalaÕs next-generation MyLink system provides personalization with its customizable center stack graphics. Buyers can enhance their interaction by using the Settings menu to change themes and personalize their Impala. The 2014 Chevrolet Impala goes on sale next spring. (Photo by Steve Fecht for Chevrolet)

Now there’s another survey showing how using a smartphone appears to dramatically slow a driver’s reaction time and increase the chances of having an accident. Once again, drunk drivers and cannabis users fare better than sober test drivers using a phone hands-free, texting, using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto voice controls, or – worst of all – using the phones for touch-screen tasks.

This survey, done in the UK for IAM RoadSmart, found that slower reaction times when using smartphones or touch-screen applications on highways increased stopping distances by four to five car lengths. On some tasks, drivers’ eyes were off the road for as much as 16 seconds, and the worst reaction times were connected to doing touch-screen applications.

A TRL study for IAM RoadSmart shows how much driver alertness was reduced by alcohol, weed, and phone/car interactions. (The kind of study that never lacks for volunteers.)

The testing, in a driving simulator, has test subjects who used either iPhones or Android phones (in their own lives) drive a simulated test route three times: once without phone interaction, once using phone voice control, and once using the car’s touch screen with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto running (not the car’s native infotainment interface). IAM RoadSmart, which describes itself as the UK’s largest road safety charity, reported six major findings in the report:

  • Controlling the vehicle’s position in the lane and keeping a consistent speed and headway to the vehicle in front suffered significantly when interacting with either Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, particularly when using touch control
  • Participants failed to react as often to a stimulus on the road ahead when engaging with either Android Auto or Apple CarPlay – with reaction times being more than 50 percent longer.
  • Reaction time to a stimulus on the road ahead was higher when selecting music through Spotify while using Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
  • The impact on reaction time when using touch control (rather than voice control) was worse than texting while driving.
  • Use of either system via touch control caused drivers to take their eyes off the road for longer than NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)-recommended guidelines.
  • Participants underestimated by as much as 5 seconds the time they thought they spent looking away from the road when engaging with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay via touch control.

Interestingly, Apple CarPlay users were more distracted than Android Auto users when using voice control and issuing car touch-screen commands. The tasks included two music-related sub-tasks while following another car, dealing with erratic highway traffic while handling navigation chores getting to a railway station, and finding a restaurant or gas station. Reaction was measured by the time to notice a red band of light on-screen. Alertness was mention by the reaction time and driver behavior (such as current speed, deviation from lane position, eye gaze behavior, and self-reported performance).

According to the report, “Driver distraction [is] estimated to be a factor in 10-30 percent of collisions in Europe.” The study found some interesting contrasts: Test-drivers said they preferred, in the personal lives, to use touch-screen over voice, yet these tests showed voice was more efficient than touch-screen interaction.

Most academics end their research by saying, “Further research is indicated,” because it often is, and because everybody wants more research grants.

The death rate the last decade, factored for population increase and miles driven (yellow line), is less than one-quarter what it was when the middle of the boomer generation came of driving age circa 1970.

We’d like to see more research that helps explain why being legally drunk at the lowest level of illegality, 0.08 percent BAC (both in the US and most of Europe), has the least effect on reaction time: 12 percent more than a sober driver. Not that we’re in favor of backing off on getting drunks off the road. Before the US drunk driver crackdown that got serious around 1980, half of all highway fatalities were linked to drunks. Yet, even though there are probably way more people texting and tinkering with music playlists than drunks, the death rate has been essentially unchanged for much of the past decade.

Part of the reason drinking (also driving stoned) is so dangerous is that a driver is drunk for the entire trip. (Stopping for coffee gets you a wide-awake … drunk.) Texters only do it for part of any trip. Of course, there are probably more texters and phone-yakkers driving all the time.

We’d also like to see how driver-assists affect (improve) safety. We suspect adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, and lane departure warning or, better, lane keep assist/lane centering assist, are so good they bail out texters before they run into something or someone. And it would be interesting to comparison test distraction using a hard-to-reach center stack display mounted high on the dash versus one the driver can reach without leaning forward in the seat.

Now read:

  • 2020 Chrysler Pacifica Review: Swallow Your Pride – This Beats an SUV
  • At Last: Driver-Assist Terms Will Be Common Across All Cars
  • Are Auto Shows a Goner in the Wake of Coronavirus?

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