Driver Distraction – are we being distracted away from real solutions?

October 29, 2012
Person using cell phone while driving.

Person using cell phone while driving. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Driver distraction is a major cause of accidents on our roads.  More research into driver distraction is therefore welcome.

 

Traditional media available in vehicles, such as radios and entertainment systems, can affect visual attention, and the current use of GPS navigation assistance and personal communication devices have been repeatedly shown to interfere with the primary driving vigilance and motor control task.  Such research has informed road authorities to restrict their use, particularly with regard to mobile phone use and texting for example.

 

The introduction of Intelligent Transport Systems has the potential to overload the driver if such systems are not tailored to driver workload according to location, traffic density and other ambient conditions.  A more accurate and layered approach to driver workload and attention level can provide a structure upon which information can be conveyed appropriately and distractions reduced or minimised.

Hume Freeway looking south towards Victoria, r...

Hume Freeway looking south towards Victoria, running parallel to Albury railway station. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

There are many instances however where use of communication devices in vehicles may actually help in vigilance (for example, long distance driving) and the ability to operate a mobile office whilst driving has undoubted productivity benefits.  The problem is that the driving environment can potentially change in milliseconds and cause an overload of the driver’s available perceptual and attentional resources.

 

The aspect of appropriate speed limits in long distance driving could also be re-addressed.  There has been a spate of single driver transport accidents on the Hume Freeway recently which have had tragic (and potentially disastrous consequences). Apart from driver fatigue and scheduling issues, is the posted speed limit too low to maintain sufficient driver arousal levels?  Long boring drives at inappropriately low speeds could also encourage further distraction (such as use of mobile devices) perhaps even increasing the potential danger.  This may not be ideal given that the severity of an incident at 100kph is still as catastrophic as one at 110 or 120kph.  If speed kills, then surely it follows that the only safe speed is zero. There is a balance between the efficient movement of goods and the consequences of error.  Does this mean that interstate transport needs to travel at 40kph so that any incidents that occur are relatively minor? Would this result in more incidents because drivers would be bored out of their minds whilst blowing out transport schedules? There needs to be an open discussion by professionals in the field as to assessment of all of the risks rather than the current thinking that slowing traffic is the only solution as seems to be the case at present.  The posted speed relative to the road design and condition could be reducing driver arousal and performance level below the desired optimal range.

 

60KM/H Speed limit sign in Australia.

60KM/H Speed limit sign in Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Human Machine Interface (HMI) remains central to safe and effective vehicle operation as the information it provides will allow the driver to retain effective control of the vehicle and help influence or even determine their behaviour. Information flow to the driver must be intuitive, readily understood, timely, and be responsive to driver attentional and distraction state.  Unfortunately, there are many who have very little understanding of this requirement. For example, presentation of the “bells and whistles” mentioned in this proposed level crossing warning system  may actually distract a driver at the worst possible time and cause more problems than the technology is trying to solve. Human scientists understand the many facets that determine the best way of presenting information so that it is perceived, recognised and acted upon in an optimal manner.  If the proponent of this system had engaged human factors expertise in the first place or heeded their advice he may not have made such ill-considered comments. Perhaps he may get some guidance as to the importance of listening to human factors professionals when he presents his data at the upcoming ITS conference in Vienna. It would be good to have some critical assessment by any human scientists attending this conference of any actual (rather than derived or contrived) interactions that occurred during the trials which were conducted of this system.

 

The area of human interaction with technology is very complex and simplistic approaches (such as further unrestrained visual or auditory “bells and whistles blaring”) will rarely be the best solution.  All the more reason to design and test proposals from a human science standpoint, heed the results and incorporate them into any proposed system.  Which underscores the importance of the many respected facilities that incorporate human science input as a keystone of their research in ITS applications, vehicle design and driver behaviour.  Hopefully their research findings are weighted appropriately (ie. seen as valid and reliable) by the governing authorities as compared to those of the “bell and whistle” variety.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Vehicle Displays

September 10, 2012
Driver in a Mitsubishi Galant using a hand hel...

Driver in a Mitsubishi Galant using a hand held mobile phone violating New York State law. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I went to a workshop the other day and heard that a major vehicle manufacturer had adopted the use of touch screen control panels for all of their products.  The speaker had been employed to study the human factors associated with these. His talk was very disturbing – drivers needed more visual attention to use these things effectively as they needed fine motor control (and therefore visual attention) to press the correct area on the screen for their selection, especially if the vehicle was pitching due to the road surface or other conditions.  It made me wonder what bright spark in the company had decided that these displays were a good way to go.  When we are trying so hard to reduce mobile phone and texting use because of the clear and significant problems they pose to road safety, we have a vehicle manufacturer that decides to integrate something into the vehicle which will undo everything that road safety authorities have so far done in this area due to a lack of understanding of the issues involved.

I thought that we had learned from the initial BMW iDrive that technology for its own sake is not necessarily the way to go.  It speaks volumes that BMW now have a very much enhanced vehicle control system which includes haptic feedback so that there is nowhere near the impact on visual resources that the original design had.  And that’s good as the more visual attention is focused on the road, the safer all users will be (put it this way – if a driver is not looking at the external visual field there is no way that they can perceive and react to a potentially dangerous situation).

It made me call to mind a conversation with an engineer who was working on electric vehicles.  He said that they would incorporate noise into the car to emulate the typical sound of current cars.  He insisted that it was the only way to retain safety for pedestrians. It called to mind the situation where a man with a red flag used to signal the approach of ‘horseless carriages’ when they were first introduced in the late nineteenth century.  Why would you introduce noise into the environment when it may not be necessary – surely that is one of the advantages of electric vehicles?  Imagine a city with substantially less road noise (and perhaps more liveable?) as a result.

One disadvantage of course is that the auditory warning provided to pedestrians and other users would not be present, but I’m sure that we have the technology to overcome this aspect.  The almost ubiquitous use of entertainment devices by commuters effectively attenuates these auditory cues in any case as has been tragically illustrated by pedestrians being killed because they stepped out in front of approaching vehicles whilst listening to music from their iPods. However, DSRC network technology could easily provide warning information to pedestrians if it is set up correctly and integrated with the mobile communication networks.  Of course, there would need to be considerable human factors input so that any system is designed properly.

I suppose that all of these examples illustrate the importance of the latter aspect.  It would have been great if the vehicle manufacturer described at the beginning of this post had taken the step of actually testing their idea from a human perspective prior to making such a retrograde decision.  We now have vehicles which inherently create a similar problem to mobile phone use and texting problems that we are trying so hard to overcome – a safety time bomb in each of the vehicles produced by this company. Similar to faulty brakes or steering as it may have the same effect on road safety

One can only hope that the engineers, accountants and marketers who seem to rise to the top of these companies will realise the importance of fundamental human factors in their future products. Not just aspects such as usability testing, but the integral way that humans sense, perceive and process information.  Perhaps we can then apply a safety systems approach to road use and reap the benefits of eliminating the contributors to potential incidents (such as poor vehicle controls) before they occur.


Are Security Questions a Joke? Or is the way the Systems are Designed the Real Joke?

August 9, 2012
Security questions

Security questions (Photo credit: janetmck)

I read a great article the other day on the threat posed by the use of password security questions as a Computer security issue.

I too have been quite amused by the poorly designed questions which purport to help you if you forget your login information for a site.  Frank Voisin suggests a few ideas to make them more applicable.

However, the second item jarred with me – Applicable: the question should be possible to answer for as large a portion of users as possible (ideally, universal).

Why?

I would have thought that the primary (and only) function was to have something which was individual to the person involved.

Now I’m only a human factors scientist, but my training suggests that we ask the individual to design their own questions.  Sure, give them some advice and make the process as intuitive as possible, but give them the ability to make it as individual as they like – surely that‘s the whole point!  After all, this information is only kept in a secure database to be accessed as needs permit.

Is it more that the systems designer was trying to make his or her job easier?  Sort of fitting the human to the system rather than designing it to the individual’s explicit needs?  Did this save them a few lines of code?

Obviously some human science input into this area is sorely needed.  This raises the question of whether someone who is a computer scientist first and has cross-trained into the human interface is the best person for this role, or someone with a psychology or social science background.
My suggestion is that in this case, you really need some cross disciplinary interaction to arrive at an optimal solution.