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The End of Distracted Driver Accidents: Advanced Driver Assistance Systems

Distracted driving is one of the major causes of car accidents today, but what if there was a solution to prevent many of them? Distracted driving is when the person in control of the car attends to irrelevant stimuli, causing impaired performance. Some examples include talking on a cell phone, listening to loud music, and texting while driving. A recent paper released by Cognition, Technology & Work proposes that issuing alerts to bring drivers to attention whenever a dangerous traffic situation exists could curb roadside accidents. This could be determined by a driver assistance system that would recognize cues that could signal an uncertain driving situation. But how would this help drivers? To help the reader understand, I will explain some of the psychological processes at work when driving, and when doing so distracted.

The world is a busy place, especially a road with cars and passerby. Our attention normally filters out all but the most important information we need to focus on. For example, instead of driving along and reading all the posters on buildings that you pass, looking at every person on the sidewalk, staring at the sky, and looking at the make of each car you pass, you instead focus on the road and the controls of the car. The decision of relevant stimuli is controlled by what is called the central executive process. This is the control center of many of our cognitive processes, such as attention. Our attention is directed by two processes, exogenous orienting, and endogenous orienting. Endogenous orienting is an internal, voluntary shift of attention by the central executive. Exogenous orienting is a spontaneous redirection of attention to a sudden stimuli that grabs our attention involuntarily. This no doubt comes from our survival instincts, to react to a predator or other danger. However, exogenous orienting is not always quick enough in the event of an accident, because it means that the accident is already happening and grabs your attention.

Our attention is finite, and we only have enough cognitive resources for a few processes. So when a driver gets distracted, and uses up some of the available capacity, performance on other tasks drops. The authors of the paper theorize that by alerting the driver, they would be able to grab their attention and redirect it towards the road, and let them be on the lookout for danger and react faster to any such obstacle.

The researchers tested this theory in a highly realistic driving simulator. They tested to see if an alert would improve the driver’s reaction to an emergency situation and restore situational awareness when distracted. The simulator was equipped with an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) that was intelligent enough to read cues in traffic and recognize potentially dangerous situations. If such a situation was recognized, then the system issued an alert in the form of a strong beep and message on a screen in the driver’s dashboard (it is simple and short enough to not distract the driver significantly). The visual message, meant for the driver to be able to read and know why the alert sounded, was intended for more ambiguous situations, where danger was not imminent, to prevent confusion by the driver as to the reason for the alert.

The distracting variable in these experiments was a series of simple math equations that the driver would have to answer on his/her HUD screen by tapping the answer. The timing of this task was at the control of the driver, as texting (which should NEVER be done while driving — you might as well close your eyes!) or navigating a map would be in real life. In the trials, the driver would be in the cruising lane as several cars would pass at a speed faster than the driver and fill in the lane ahead of the driver. The driver would be alerted to this, as it could cause a deceleration of the car directly in front of him/her. If the trial included distraction, the subtask would begin here. For example, in the driver would begin doing the simple math problems given on the dashboard, which would take up some of their attentional capacity and simulate talking on a cell phone or texting while driving. Then, in both trials, the cars in front would decelerate rapidly, and the driver’s reactions were tested. The alert was found to be effective in that drivers were more ready to apply the brakes in the event of a rapid deceleration, and reacted quicker, even when performing the secondary task. These results provide support for such systems to be installed in cars, though they will need to be accompanied by other systems to fill out the safety net for possible scenarios. For example, I think the best assistance system would be one that blocks cell phone signals in cars, to eliminate talking on a cell phone, one of the most distracting subtasks on the road.


We know now that cognitive limitations are a cause of many car accidents, and that technology can help. The design of such systems is a wildly popular industry today, and is only getting more intelligent and accurate. Before we know it, accidents caused by distracted driving could be a thing of the past thanks to advanced driver assistance systems. We do have to keep in mind that they will not be able to protect us from everything, and we have to be aware of our limits and what simple changes we can make in our lives to not cross them.


Click here to read the article




Makoto, Itoh., Genya, Abe., Tomohiro Yamamura (2013, May 17) Cognition, Technology, and Work. Retrieved from http://0-link.springer.com.library.colby.edu/article/10.1007/s10111-013-0264-9/fulltext.html

Example of assistance system’s scan

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  1. May 9th, 2014 at 14:36 | #1

    Nice post! It’s good to see that with all of this new technology being introduced into cars, some of it can actually prevent accidents instead of distracting the driver further. I really like the idea of snapping somebody’s attention to the road if there’s a potential danger (although ideally people should be giving the road ahead their full attention the whole time). Perhaps the warning system could affect other things in the car, such as turning down the radio (I notice that I tend to turn down the radio if I need to pay extra attention to the road, possibly because even something simple like listening to music can use up attentional resources.) Maybe in the near future these technologies could case a dramatic reduction in accidents.

    This post also reminded me of a news article I read recently, about Google using similar technology to develop self-driving cars. (http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/181508-googles-self-driving-car-passes-700000-accident-free-miles-can-now-avoid-cyclists-stop-for-trains) There have only been two accidents involving such cars, both of which were caused by humans (one in which a person was manually parking a Google car and another when a Google car was rear-ended at a stoplight). However, one of the major shortcomings of this technology is that these computerized cars can only react to road conditions that have been pre-programmed. While the list of programmed conditions is impressive (there are thousands, including rarer events such as construction lanes), they can’t compare to a human’s ability to actively make decisions. The real reason there cars have performed so well when compared to humans is because they never get distracted or divert their attention.

  2. May 9th, 2014 at 08:58 | #2

    I think this post is very intriguing because instead of technology being the cause of distracted driving, technology in this case is helping prevent harmful situations involving distracted driving. I think it is amazing how cars of today can detect dangerous situations on the road and then alert you immediately. The Mercedes Benz “blind spot assist” feature can be found in most of their cars today and is a similar alert system to the one you have mentioned. The blind spot assist feature uses a radar sensor system to monitor the areas around your car and then produces an audible beeping sound if the driver decides to change lanes and is in danger of collision. In some cases the car can actually steer itself out of harms way.
    As new technology hits the market each day, I wonder if these technological safety nets in cars will make the driver rely more on their alert systems rather than focusing on driving. Will drivers be more inclined to text or call someone because they know the car will alert them if they are approaching a dangerous situation? Many people don’t realize the true dangers of distracted driving. Cell phone use in a car increases accident risk by a factor of four. It also severely diminishes your awareness and field of vision. When you are paying attention to one thing, you are missing others. This is inattentional blindness. Just because you “see” something, doesn’t mean you are attending to it. I agree that these advanced driver assistance systems can be highly useful, but I also think that new problems might arise if drivers rely too much on them and devote their attention to other tasks while driving.

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