The machine also documents the total time per task; newer technologies are generally more distracting. Dialing a cellphone, for example, takes about three times as long as punching a radio. Computer displays that require selecting from a menu sometimes accumulate 15 seconds or so worth of glances.
Ford and other auto companies are using such data to develop engineering standards for equipment installed in their cars. A 15-second limit for the total time needed to operate a device was proposed as a universal standard, but hasn't been adopted.
But the focus on time spent looking away from the road begs the bigger issue: Can people safely accomplish other tasks while driving, period? Some recent scientific research suggests that the brain has built-in limits when it comes to performing multiple activities. The research seems to indicate that you really can't walk and chew gum at the same time. At least, not do each task quite as well as one done alone.
One such study, conducted at the University of Utah and released in August, tested reaction times in a simulator while drivers were operating various devices and talking on cellphones, both with and without hands-free options. The results seemed to indicate that phone conversation interfered with reaction times and attention, even when the driver did not have to dial the number. Another recent study, at Carnegie Mellon University, examined brain activity while people were attempting to multitask. The study did not specifically involve cellphones or driving, but the results showed reduced brain activity in the area associated with each task when two were attempted at once.
An accident study by NHTSA indicates that driver distraction causes as many as 20 percent of accidents. But the study takes a very broad definition of distraction -- most of the "distractions" consisted of something happening at the roadside rather than inside the vehicle. "We are just beginning to study what happens when we add cognitive tasks (to driving)," says Greenberg.
The research has implications far beyond studying the potential for onboard devices to distract. One is that the basic perceptual mechanisms at work can be harnessed to design a whole new, and safer, way of driving. A new array of sensors has already been developed that provides the driver with potentially lifesaving real-time information. Examples are night vision, rearward-warning radar, and traffic-monitoring devices that calculate the speed and actions of each car approaching an intersection. Some sensors, such as distance-controlling, radar-activated brakes, intervene automatically. Others, however, require the driver's attention.
"The question is, how do we get this information to the driver in a way that (lets him) act appropriately?" Greenberg says. It's not a simple issue. A warning beep? If so, how loud, and at what frequency? What effect will an automatic braking application have on a driver? Driving simulators that consider how sudden sights and sounds affect a driver's reactions are designed to answer these questions. They should yield a system of alerts that most drivers react to intuitively.
Meanwhile, the immediate reaction to the issue of driver distraction is to reduce or eliminate activities that induce motorists to take their eyes off the road or their hands off the wheel. Voice activation is already available, not only for cellphones but also for other activities such as changing radio stations and operating air-conditioning. A voice recognition system that makes e-mail reasonably safe and practical has yet to be introduced, though GM claims it has taken steps toward such a system with its OnStar Virtual Advisor, which presents most of its information, including e-mail, audibly, over a phone line. OnStar relies on a huge phone bank to deliver its information, which has led to a study of whether any OnStar subscribers have suffered accidents while online. A review of some 8 million phone calls found only two accidents severe enough to deploy an airbag.
Still, the proliferation of onboard electronic systems continues to cause concern. The installation of such systems, whether approved by the manufacturer or not, is outstripping the research that studies how they are used -- research that ideally will provide for the sound, safe use of electronics in the cars of the future.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.