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Technology Watch: Decreasing driver distraction
Watch the road — not the phone!
 
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Photo credit: AFP/Image Source
Some of the most dangerous forms of driver distraction are making calls and text messaging — also known as texting

Alarming statistics

    “More than 1.2 million people die in road accidents every year — and between 20 and 50 million others are injured.”

More than 1.2 million people die in road accidents every year — and between 20 and 50 million others are injured. Over 90 per cent of the deaths occur in low-income and middleincome countries, which have only 48 per cent of the world’s vehicles, according to the Global status report on road safety: Time for action, published by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The report says that “while road traffic death rates in many high-income countries have stabilized or declined in recent decades, data suggest that in most regions of the world the global epidemic of traffic injuries is still increasing”. It adds that road traffic injuries affect all age groups, “but their impact is more striking among the young”.

These alarming statistics have prompted the United Nations Road Safety Collaboration to launch 2011–2020 as the Decade of Action for Road Safety in order to halt or reverse the increasing trend in road traffic deaths and injuries around the world. To contribute to raising awareness on this important issue within the ITU membership, the Council, at its annual session in April 2010, adopted Resolution 1318 on the role of ITU in promoting the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) to improve road safety.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and United States President Barack Obama have banned their employees from texting while driving: “Texting while driving kills.”

With celebrity-backed distracted driving campaigns on one side and lobbyists and industry in fear of a full ban of mobile phones while driving on the other, driver distraction is far more than a technical issue.

Highlights from the Technology Watch Report

“More than 50 countries now restrict or prohibit the use of hand-held phones while driving.”    

Some of the most dangerous forms of driver distraction are making calls and text messaging — also known as texting. A Technology Watch Report1 entitled “Decreasing Driver Distraction”, released in August 2010 by ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU–T), highlights the standards, guidelines and initiatives that aim to make the use of in-vehicle information and communication systems less distracting. More than 50 countries now restrict or prohibit the use of hand-held phones while driving.

Standards addressing driver distraction should be applicable to any type of device produced by any manufacturer and used by a driver with any level of experience. The report describes work done by ITU and its standardization arm, ITU–T, in this area, and recommends further ways of reducing driver distraction.

Resolution 1318 considers “that driver distraction and road-user behaviour, which includes among many examples ’texting’, ’text messaging’, interfacing with in-vehicle navigation and communication systems, are among the leading contributors to road traffic fatalities and injuries,” and that the proliferation of ICT use in cars may contribute to driver distraction.

Recent research suggests that drivers spend up to 400 per cent more time with their eyes off the road when texting than they do when not texting. Mobile broadband enables drivers and passengers to benefit from innovative applications and locationbased services. But, when used at the wheel, smartphones — like other mobile phones — contribute to inattention.

A simulation study conducted by Monash University’s Accident Research Centre (Australia), one of the foremost research institutions on driver distraction, concluded that “retrieving and, in particular, sending text messages has a detrimental effect on a number of safety critical driving measures, such as the ability to maintain lateral position, detect hazards, and to detect and respond appropriately to traffic signs.”

In-vehicle information and communication devices

    “Regardless of whether a phone is hands-free or hand-held, drivers in most cases take their eyes off the road and their hands off the wheel to reach for the phone, either to dial a number or answer an incoming call. Some studies have found that using a hands-free phone while driving is in no way safer than using a handheld phone.”

In-vehicle information and communication services are delivered via vehicle components provided by the original equipment manufacturer, via automotive aftermarket devices (personal navigation devices) or via smartphones — a segment rapidly gaining market share. A study by market research firm iSuppli suggests that smartphones have already become the most important platform for maps, navigation and other location-based services. According to the study, the number of smartphone-based navigation systems will increase to 81 million in 2010, and is expected to rise to 297 million by 2014.

Many vehicle manufacturers offer installed information and communication devices as optional extras in their vehicles. Displays and controls of these parts are typically integrated in the car’s dashboard, steering wheel or console. Applications include navigation, as well as the control of entertainment, air conditioning and communication systems. The design of these components follows guidelines to minimize driver distraction.

At a lower cost compared to components installed by the original equipment manufacturer, a number of manufacturers supply nomadic aftermarket devices for in-vehicle use. Personal navigation devices, for example, are bundled with a windshield mount and charger. Their displays (often touchscreens) are typically larger than those of smartphones, allowing for menu systems to be optimized for usability when driving. Most manufacturers of personal navigation devices implement human-machine interface standards and guidelines.

With the global positioning system (GPS) becoming a standard, smartphones are now taking over the navigation market for cars. But with their smaller screen size, their navigation applications are not generally designed to be operated while driving.

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Photo credit: AFP/Image Source

What is driver distraction?

According to the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety, driver distraction occurs “when a driver is delayed in the recognition of information needed to safely accomplish the driving task because some event, activity, object or person within or outside the vehicle compelled or tended to induce the driver’s shifting attention away from the driving task.

    “Technology-based distractions include navigation or route guidance systems, traffic information and entertainment — such as car radios, CD and MP3 players — not just calls and text messages.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration distinguishes four types of distraction:

  • visual distraction, when the driver’s visual field is blocked (for example by stickers on the windscreen) or the driver neglects to look at the road or loses visual “attentiveness”;

  • auditory distraction, when the driver focuses on sounds (such as the radio or a passenger talking), rather than on the road environment;

  • biomechanical (also known as physical distraction), when the driver removes one or both hands from the steering wheel to manipulate an object (for example to compose a text message), instead of focusing on the physical tasks required to drive safely;

  • cognitive distraction, when the driver’s attention is so absorbed that reaction time is reduced and the driver is unable to navigate the road network safely.

“Operating a mobile phone may involve all four forms of distraction: physical distraction caused by dialling a number; visual distraction caused by looking at the phone to dial a number; auditory distraction caused by holding a conversation on the phone; and cognitive distraction caused by focusing on the topic of conversation rather than monitoring any changes in the road environment.

Regardless of whether a phone is hands-free or hand-held, drivers in most cases take their eyes off the road and their hands off the wheel to reach for the phone, either to dial a number or answer an incoming call. Some studies have found that using a hands-free phone while driving is in no way safer than using a hand-held phone.

Technology-based distractions include navigation or route guidance systems, traffic information and entertainment — such as car radios, CD and MP3 players — not just calls and text messages. And the next generation of so-called infotainment will bring the Internet and the power of the personal computer to the car, including access to 3D maps and highdefinition video.

Some principles and guidelines

Although technological advances are increasing the capacity of vehicles to sense, control and navigate the road, there will always be a human — susceptible to being distracted — involved.

How much an in-vehicle information and communication system distracts from driving depends on the user, in particular the user’s age, driving experience and familiarity with the demands of the device. It does not depend on who manufactured the device or how the device got into the vehicle.

Drivers may be distracted by any type of device, so standards need to cover all the technologies on offer. In-vehicle systems must be easy to learn, intuitive to use, and be designed to avoid the four types of distraction listed above. Users should be able to control the pace of interaction, and completing a desired task should not adversely affect driving.

These and other principles of sound basic ergonomics, as well as the interplay of in-vehicle information and communication systems with other in-car and driver assistance systems (such as adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assistance, and collision warning) have been outlined in standards and guidelines issued by standards bodies and automobile organizations, including the International Organization for Standardization, the Society of Automotive Engineers, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, and the United Kingdom’s Transport Research Laboratory.

The European Commission’s 2006 recommendation on safe and efficient in-vehicle information and communication systems covers systems intended for use by the driver while the vehicle is in motion. These include, for example, navigation systems, mobile phones, and traffic and travel information systems — whether portable or permanently installed. The primary goal of the 43 principles outlined in this recommendation is to enable drivers to maintain safe control of their vehicles in a complex and dynamic traffic environment.

Guidelines and standards are contributing to reducing driver distraction from most in-vehicle information and communication systems provided by original equipment manufacturers, and from many aftermarket personal navigation devices. But mobile phones, smartphones and their applications are not necessarily designed bearing in mind the specific requirements of distraction-free driving.

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Box 1 — ITU–T Focus Group on Car Communication

The ITU–T Focus Group on Car Communication (FG CarCom) was established by ITU–T Study Group 12, the lead study group on quality of service and quality of experience, at its November 2009 meeting. Key areas of attention of FG CarCom include:

  • in-car communication quality parameters and testing methods;
  • interaction of car hands-free systems with the radio channel;
  • requirements for car hands-free on a subsystem level;
  • requirements and testing procedures for super-wideband and full-band systems, and interaction with other audio components and systems in the car;
  • special requirements and testing procedures for speech recognition systems in cars;
  • quality models and how they can be applied in the car environment.

The objective of FG CarCom is to develop a new set of requirements and specifications to help advance the work in these areas, in line with Questions 4/12 and 12/12 (also see Table 1).

FG CarCom currently consists of experts in the field of speech and audio processing in cars, with special focus on hands-free terminal design and integration. Participation is open to ITU members and non-members (for example, administrations, network operators, manufacturers, industry trade organizations and user groups).

   

Future approaches to driving safely

Updated status information is provided by both fixed and nomadic devices, and by the vehicle itself. Most smartphones and other devices are equipped with sensors and GPS receivers, and the information they collect could be combined with data obtained from vehicle onboard units and driver assistance systems, or with traffic updates received from external service providers or traffic police.

Based on parameters such as the car’s velocity and location, the density of traffic, or even the driver’s driving style (aggressive, defensive or anticipatory) and experience, the in-vehicle information and communication system could decide to disable any feature not safe enough to be used in a particular situation. As an example, a mobile phone might allow a hands-free call when the driver is driving on a highway outside the city, but prohibit a call in hectic traffic situations, temporarily suspend a call when the driver is making a turn, or not allow a phone to ring when the driver is overtaking. An automated message could inform the person on the other end that the call is being temporarily suspended or held because of adverse driving conditions.

From a technical perspective, this would require well defined and standardized interfaces between vehicular systems and all kinds of ICT devices used in vehicles. From a regulatory perspective, besides the involvement of the automotive and ICT sectors, road safety experts would have to collaborate with lawmakers and policy-makers to define an all-encompassing set of vehicle status information and rules, applicable to traffic laws worldwide.

Since 2006, communication from, to, in and between vehicles has been covered by different ITU–T Focus Groups, in the context of the work of certain ITU–T Study Groups (see Table 1). Some of the topics under discussion in the Focus Group on Car Communication (FG CarCom, see Box 1) relate to the impact of ICT on driver distraction.

Providing a means to decrease driver distraction caused by mobile phones is a challenging task. It requires the cooperation and collaboration of equipment manufacturers, network operators, mobile platform and application developers, safety advocates, standards setters and other stakeholders.

New navigation and route-guidance applications are released each day and downloaded to smartphones. An ITU–T Focus Group, providing the links to the ICT sector, the automotive industry and the relevant authorities in ITU’s 192 Member States, could be a place to coordinate efforts to protect drivers from being distracted by technology that is intended to make their lives easier.

At the annual Fully Networked Car workshop in 2010, jointly organized by ISO, IEC and ITU at the Geneva International Motor Show, participants in one technical session concluded that quality and naturalness of all speech services need to be increased to reduce driver distraction. A special session on driver distraction is planned for the 2011 workshop.

 

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