Neil Dowling reports on how driver distraction is killing more motorists than ever before
First, the facts. Driver distraction has been fingered as causing one fatal road accident of every three fatalities. Worse, it is becoming so frequent that research shows 748 crashes were caused by a distracted driver in 2005 yet by 2011, that figure had grown to 1585 accidents.
In this seven-year period, the accident rate where distraction has been the cause, has doubled. Monash University’s Accident Research Centre (MUARC) found that Australian drivers are distracted for 45 per cent of the time they spend behind the wheel. The report added that driver distraction – including fiddling with the audio, adjusting the seat, checking out passing pedestrians, and mobile phone texting – is the cause of 18 per cent of serious road accidents.
The results come from the first study using a random sample of data from the Australian Naturalistic Driving Study (ANDS) that used cameras and sensors inside cars of 346 cars owned by 379 NSW and Victorian drivers. The research chose country and city, men and women, a spread of age groups and differing levels of driving experience and then recorded them driving 194,961 trips totaling more than 1.95 million kilometres.
ANDS – a major project by MUARC, Transport and Road Safety Research at UNSW, the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Automotive Safety Research and Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety Queensland with backing from major insurers and Transport for NSW – followed global studies that similarly covered a wide range of accidents and driver skill sets.
The research showed that technology is, in part, to blame – specifically, the use of a mobile phone when driving. It found that texting when driving means your chances of an accident jump by 23 times compared with a non-distracted driver.
Australia is one of the worst offenders with research showing 59 per cent of drivers admit to using their mobile phone while driving. Even talking on the phone will increase the chances of an accident, with reaction times of a phone user when driving equivalent to that of a person aged 70 years.
An Australian Government survey found that 64 per cent of respondents report using their mobile phone while driving, including 40 per cent who make calls while driving and 21 per cent who use their mobile phone for other activities such as browsing the internet and taking photos.
The same survey also shows a significant increase in the proportion of participants considering “driving distraction/driving while on a mobile” as the main factor leading to road crashes, growing from 8 per cent in 2013 to 18 per cent in 2017.
Mobile phones are also a distraction for pedestrians and are associated with increased risk of pedestrian injury. A Brisbane survey of pedestrians found that smart phone use while walking and crossing the road was high, especially among people aged 18-30 years.
As a response to this research, new penalties kicked in this year for Queensland motorists that will see drivers fined $1000 and lose four demerit points if caught handling their phone while behind the wheel.
Queensland University of Technology (QUT) researcher Dr. Oscar Oviedo-Trespalacios, who specialises in distracted driving research, told Delivery magazine that driver distraction had always existed. He said it was dependent in severity on the conditions under which the vehicle was being operated, the type of vehicle, the driver’s condition and so on.
“The introduction of new technology – much of it aimed at preventing accidents – has itself become another source of distraction.
“A mobile phone can be a helpful aid to driving – maps and warnings about weather or traffic conditions, for example – but it involves the driver operating it and reading the screen.
“Anything that requires the driver to take their eyes off the road is dangerous. People have to understand that these systems are distractions.”
Dr. Oviedo-Trespalacios said the main problem with accidents involving trucks is fatigue.
“There are some issues to overcome when a driver is fatigued,” he said.
“Anecdotally, playing a song on the radio or a recording while driving is seen to help with boredom and fatigue and to prevent distraction, but we have found that’s not true.
“Using the phone or device to find and play music is, by itself, very distractive to a driver. Where possible, use voice control to do that.”
“There are two easily accessed phone apps that could reduce driver distraction by up to 30 per cent. The problem is most people don’t know about them or have never tried them,” he said.
These apps are “Do Not Disturb While Driving” – an in-built app on new iPhones – and “Android Auto” that is pre-installed on new Android phones or can be downloaded for Androids operating on older systems. Both block most phone functions while still allowing incoming hands-free calls, Bluetooth music and voice commands.
To test the apps, Dr Oviedo-Trespalacios ran an eight-week driver behaviour study at QUT with 40 motorists aged from 18 to 56 years.
“We found these apps reduced driver distraction by 25-30 per cent, even if drivers only used the app 70 per cent of the time while driving. Before the research, only 18 of the 40 drivers knew that the safety apps existed and only five had ever used them,” he said.
QUT’s Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety-Queensland (CARRS-Q) asked drivers to use the apps for eight weeks and record their experiences, including how much they had used their phone. It was then compared with the confidential answers they provided before the experiment about their phone use while driving.
While the study found the apps reduced driver distraction, it also found participants thought performance improvements were needed to encourage greater use.
“It sounds simple but it’s really about having a tool to help you avoid temptation,” he said. “You have to activate them prior to starting your journey and make sure your Bluetooth is on. If possible, you should allow the app to connect automatically with your car every time you drive.
“We found the people who were the least impressed with using the app were those who were frequent users of their mobile phones while driving prior to the study. These people were the least likely to want to persist in getting used to the app and continuing to use it after the study.
“Overall, we found these apps were a great way for people to avoid the temptation of looking at their phone. One of the best things they do is to not allow notifications to come through – so if you don’t know a text message is there, you’re not tempted to look at it. Instead they flow in when you reach your destination and turn the app off.”
He said getting used to driving with the app had proved to be a challenge in itself for some drivers, and thus potentially distracting.
Dr. Oviedo-Trespalacios said the app was the latest response to moves by game developers to reduce potential danger.
“When Pokemon Go started, the developers had the idea that people would walk around and play the game,” he said.
“They because concerned when they found people were driving their vehicle to the next location after noting the speed of the user through the geo-location software programme. Immediately, they cautioned players against this practice and posted a sign warning of dangers.”
He said a similar response came from EV maker Tesla.
“The Tesla autopilot is seen by owners as being an autonomous feature of the car. In fact, it’s not,” he said.
“Autonomous means the system can make decisions about surroundings at all times. People hear the word autonomous and think it is about robots – but it’s not. It’s dangerous to communicate that to people.
“The Tesla system is semi-autonomous, but owners have misunderstood the system and have fallen asleep while driving and not paying attention when the car is mobile. Tesla now requires drivers to have a hand on the steering wheel at all times. That’s responsible for the company.”
There is the conservative policy that bans people from using a phone in a vehicle – even voice control.
“I think that it is better that the driver plans the calls,” he said.
“Have the conversation beforehand so there’s no looking at a screen while the vehicle is moving.
“Plan ahead. I need to make a phone call or if I’m expecting a call – maybe from the boss – then do it before you drive. The same goes with music. Get the music programmed before you drive so you’re not looking away from the road to find music.
“It’s simple solution but we spend a lot of time on research to find out what people do in a car and then find the answers and then develop policies.”
One man’s take on distraction
The technology built into modern trucks is far ahead of that available in many cars, with a truck driver’s performance being monitored by the onboard telematics systems, measuring smooth and consistent driving or recording sudden and harsh braking.
This truck fleet owner tested himself against the telematics system in his truck and found that major accidents caused by inattention might only be one hands-free phone call away.
“You drive along, talking hands-free over the Bluetooth system and you think you’re still paying full attention. But the Driver Support System built into the truck telematics scores your driving and will quickly tell you otherwise.
“I’ve seen my score go from 99 per cent to 65 per cent during one phone call. The truck has recognised you’re not giving the road your full attention, with a plus or minus score when anticipating hills and lifting off before the crest or allowing the truck to use gravity rather than full power on the descent.
“The on-board driver monitoring system is far more sophisticated and perceptive than many drivers realise, and it can sense when the driver is not applying their full attention.
“Driver training and performance is rewarded by the truck with a good score that translates to high efficiency in operation, especially in terms of lowering fuel consumption.
“A high score also means you’re a better, safer driver and more alert behind the wheel,” he added.