Unusual UNC research confirms drivers face multiple distractions

Press Release - For immediate use

August 6, 2003

CHAPEL HILL — While yacking on cell phones sparks most of the criticism and news stories nowadays, drivers also experience a host of other distractions that steal their attention from the road ahead, new research concludes. Fumbling with food, checking out one's hairdo and trying to find a less obnoxious radio station can all increase a driver's risk of crashing.

As part of their novel study, University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center staff videotaped 70 people in Pennsylvania and North Carolina as they went about their normal driving over a one-week period.

Researchers earlier installed miniature, three-camera video equipment just below the rear-view mirrors of their volunteer subjects' vehicles. Larger boxes containing batteries and recording equipment were placed in the vehicles' trunks. Starting the cars activated the cameras to tape the volunteers and also the roads they traveled.

"We wanted to find out as much as we could about potentially distracting activities during everyday driving since the National Highway Safety Administration has estimated that driver inattention or distraction is responsible for up to 30 percent of police-reported crashes, or an estimated 1.2 million crashes a year," said Dr. Jane Stutts, associate director for social and behavioral research at HSRC.

"We found that 30 percent of our subjects talked on cell phones, 40 percent read or wrote — chiefly when their cars were stopped at signs or lights — almost 46 percent groomed themselves in some way, 71 percent ate or drank beverages and almost 92 percent fiddled with radios or CD players."

The non-profit AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety of Washington, D.C., sponsored the research. Investigators released findings from the second phase of the continuing study at simultaneous news conferences in the nation's capital and in Chapel Hill Wednesday. The first phase contained results of an analysis of five years of National Automotive Sampling System Crashworthiness Data System data and both national and N.C. crash reports to identify driver distractions.

Before the taping, the volunteer drivers — half from the Chapel Hill area and half from an area just north of Philadelphia — were told only that the study was aimed at learning how traffic and roadway conditions affected driving behavior. The men and women, ages 18 to 80, were asked to drive normally and return after a week to have the equipment removed.

Excluding time spent talking with passengers, drivers engaged in some kind of potentially distracting activity up to 16 percent of the total time their vehicles were moving, Stutts said. Although reading and writing — among the most serious distractions — occurred chiefly when vehicles were stopped, eating, drinking, smoking, manipulating music controls, dealing with children and talking were just as likely to happen while driving.

"Taking into account the shorter amount of time that children and especially babies were carried in vehicles, children were about four times and infants almost eight times more likely than adults to be a source of distraction to the driver, based on the number of distracting events per hour of driving," she said. "Compared to males, females were more likely to groom themselves and to attend to things outside the vehicle."

Other UNC highway safety center staffers involved in the study were Dr. John Feaganes, Eric Rodgman, Charles Hamlett, Thomas Meadows and Dr. Donald Reinfurt. Others who contributed were Dr. Kenneth Gish, Michael Mercadante and Dr. Loren Staplin of TransAnalytics, LLC of Kulpsville, Pa. TransAnalytics is a consulting firm specializing in highway safety research.

Stutts said the study, besides its relatively small sample size, was limited in several important ways.

"In particular, we were unable to capture any measure of cognitive distraction, which the research literature suggests may pose the greatest risk to driving safety," she said. "Consequently, our study is not able to provide a definitive answer as to which activities, or which driver distractions, carry the greatest risks of crash involvement."

Still, the study is valuable, Stutts said.

"We believe it is the first to collect real-world driving data on the frequency and duration of these distractions and measures of their effects on driving performance," she said. "Although recent research has focused on cell phones and other technologies, our work demonstrates that many distractions are neither new nor technological. Rather, they are aspects of everyday driving that people are likely to seldom think about.

"With all the new technologies that future vehicles will afford, learning how to better manage these distractions is of critical importance. The human element is, and always has been, the most difficult to influence in our continuing efforts to improve safety on our roadways."


Note: Stutts can be reached at (919) 962-8717, Reinfurt at 929-3318.

HSRC contacts: Renee Morin, (919) 962-7803 or Mary Ellen Tucker, 962-8701

News Services contacts: Karen Moon, 962-8595 (broadcast) or David Williamson, 962-8596

Media Contacts

Caroline Dickson

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