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Technology both promising and troubling trend with distracted driving, researcher says

By Marc Giauque | Posted - May 8th, 2014 @ 7:56pm

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SALT LAKE CITY — In addition to laptops, radios, lights, sirens and other controls, Utah Highway Patrol cruisers are being equipped with hands-free Bluetooth technology that will link to a trooper’s phone.

“This will actually ring and tell me who’s calling,” said UHP Lt. Jeff Nigbur. “All I have to do is say ‘answer.’”

The aftermarket devices were installed ahead of a new law that will go into effect next week, making it illegal for drivers to manually handle devices like smartphones. Similar devices have been available commercially for years and now more car makers are building the technology in.

“What we’re seeing is really kind of a very change in the landscape of technology in the car,” said Dr. David Strayer, a University of Utah psychology professor who’s become renowned for his research on driving distractions. “There really starts to be a blurry line between where your phone ends and where your car begins."

Strayer said much of the technology being put into cars is only attempting to address visual diversions, but that’s only part of the problem.

You really have the responsibility to pay attention while you're driving and that means not updating Facebook or sending photos or scanning the Internet.

–Dr. David Strayer

“There’s visual distraction where your eyes are off the road. There’s manual distraction where you’re not holding onto the steering wheel, and there’s cognitive distraction, where you’re not paying attention to what you’re looking at,” Strayer said.

As far as visual distraction, Strayer said the federal government has come up with a guideline that drivers should not take their eyes off the road for more than 2.5 seconds, no matter what they’re doing.

He said research has shown when using a phone or similar device, people tend to take much longer than that.

Much of Strayer’s research, though, has centered around the cognitive, or “thinking” kind of distraction, involving possibly drivers failing to notice what’s in front of them: “Everyone else sees the hazard, but you don’t,” Strayer said.

From that perspective, Strayer sees technology only getting more in the way.

“Distraction is actually becoming, I think, a greater problem just because of the kinds of technology being put into the vehicle," he said.


Strayer thinks that could ultimately be one of the driving factors behind an eventual shift to cars that drive themselves. Beyond distracted driving, he sees it as a possible solution to many other hazards including DUI and driver fatigue.

But he also predicts a bumpy road.

He said there will be many issues to address, such as trusting the technology, knowing what to do if it fails, deciding who would be responsible if there were an accident and determining how to make a shift from cars that talk to your phone to cars that talk to each other.

Until that happens, Strayer said, responsibility for safety will still rest on the driver.

“You really have the responsibility to pay attention while you're driving and that means not updating Facebook or sending photos or scanning the Internet or the kinds of things that people do," he said.


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