A peer-reviewed study conducted at the University of Central Florida — partnering with the Air Force Research Laboratory –compared the reaction times of 40 drivers in a simulated driving experience. During the simulation, a car ahead panic-stopped. Subjects who were texting with smartphones or Google Glass were equally slow to respond.
“While Glass-delivered messaging has benefits, it does not in any way make driving-while-messaging safe,” said lead researcher Ben D. Sawyer.
Researchers found that those wearing Google Glass were able to recover more quickly after the incidents, but they traveled with less distance between their car and the car ahead, which suggests that Google Glass wearers have a significantly dulled perception of risk.
In its proposed rule making, NHTSA seems to think it’s the act of texting that’s the problem: “Car companies are urged to restrict any system that lets drivers push buttons or otherwise manually input addresses or other data while the car is moving. Voice-activated systems are preferred.”
But researchers at MIT — along with separate research from the University of Wichita — say that it’s the conversation, rather than the act of texting that might be the problem.
In a paper entitled A Field Study on the Impact of Variations in Short-Term Memory Demand on Drivers’ Visual Attention and Driving Performance across Three Age Groups, research scientists at MIT showed that any increase in cognitive load has a significant impact on visual scanning, even when the driver was asked to perform as simple a task as repeating a one-digit number.
“Eyes on the road does not equal mind on the road,” said Dr. Bryan Riemer, Research Scientist at the MIT AgeLab.
Reimer and colleague Dr. Bruce Mehler studied 108 drivers broken into three age ranges — 20 to 29, 40 to 49 and 60 to 69 – as they drove a Volvo XC90 from Cambridge to Manchester, New Hampshire to learn how processing low, medium and high-demand tasks impacted their attention as they drove.
In the easiest challenge, participants were given a series of single-digit numbers from zero to nine, then asked to repeat each number as it was given. The medium-demand task required that they provide a number one number earlier in the sequence. In the high-demand task, drivers repeated numbers two digits earlier in the sequence.
“Even just repeating a series of numbers has an effect on the driver that we can see in how their eyes move around the road,” says Reimer. If repeating two numbers has a marked effect, repeating a phone number, or remembering a name that you can’t quite recall could have a much greater effect on our cognitive ability to focus on the road. “As soon as we asked people to do anything else, even something modest, it has a measurable effect,” he says.
Reimer and Mehler say that even light cognitive tasks challenge a driver’s ability to focus on the road ahead, challenging the perception that hands-free technology like that integrated into some new cars and Google Glass is risk free, voice interfaces of various types may provide a lower demanding ways to interface with technologies in the vehicle than more traditional visual-manual based interactions.