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Driving While Distracted: The Challenges of Measuring Behavior in Complex Environments

6 minute read | Carl Marci, Chief Neuroscientist | January 2018

The world is changing. Fast. The way we work. The way we travel. The way we watch videos and shows. The way we simply interact with each other. And because the pace of change is happening so incredibly fast, it can be hard to understand what, and just how much, change has happened over a week, month or year. Our brains just aren’t wired to be able to convey these things, even when asked about them. We store and recall what’s relevant to us now.

So a little perspective is required to comprehend the pace of technological changes. I came face-to-face with this on a recent vacation. We’d borrowed a friend’s SUV for the trip. It was, maybe, 10 years old. It was in great shape and really didn’t feel old. Except, of course, once you sat in the driver’s seat. The knobs and sliders and single-disc CD player felt like something out of a movie from last century.

There were no touchscreens or wireless or app integration that seem to provide a spaceship’s worth of technology at your finger tips. Certainly nothing like what visitors at the upcoming North American International Auto Show will experience, where present and future collide in a kaleidoscope of flashy gadgets and connectivity. And while it took a couple of days to get used to this SUV, I could noticeably feel the difference in the driving experience.

As a scientist curious about human nature and distraction—and technology’s role in that equation—I was curious to understand this dynamic on a deeper level. Not just about the car specifically, but about how my experience was a reminder of the technology now available to us. How much it changes our behaviors. And how little we can consciously experience that. So I was curious: are we really distracted in our cars? I don’t text and drive, and also know the features in my car very well—so is technology really affecting me?

It’s a legitimate question. So, we tested it. Not a big test. Just a single driver as a pilot, using neuroscience-inspired technology while driving a late-model compact car. With head-mounted eye tracking and a biometric sensing device, we could understand, moment-by-moment, where every eye movement landed and the corresponding emotional level of engagement on a short, 10-minute trip around an unknown part of downtown Boston. The equipment isn’t much different from the technology we use every day to understand an ad or packaging or shelf set for our clients.

What the test revealed was astonishing. Between the smartphone and center console, our driver looked away from the road more than seven times every minute (about 60 times in the eight-minute drive). Distraction was more likely to happen when biometric arousal was low, suggesting boredom or less effort was being exerted (pretty similar to when we look away from the TV or scroll through social media feeds when we’re bored). Some tasks occupied as many as 10 rapid glances back and forth. And our driver didn’t text a single time. She was distracted by all of the other things we don’t usually worry about as much—like changing climate control and navigating unfamiliar territory.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines distraction as anything that takes your attention away from the task of driving: talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle and adjusting controls are all examples. Socially, we accept these as “normal” activities when we’re in the comfort of our living room, but what about while we drive?

The question is, we all know texting and driving is unacceptable (and banned in some states), but how do these other activities stack up when it comes to distraction? While limited, this initial test showed comparable results in terms of distraction for using a phone while driving for navigation and adjusting the temperature using climate controls in terms of time and engagement with the road. The point is that additional distractions in any environment are just that: they’re additive.

We’re all equal parties in this environment. We have collectively let distraction (primarily via mobile devices) permeate every part of our lives, often without giving it a second thought. Take a look around you on your commute home, on the train, in the doctor’s office waiting room, in your living room, at a restaurant or crossing the street. How many people are not looking at a device? Distractions are also happening in our daily driving experiences. Our study showed that our driver was more likely to get distracted when she was showing signs of boredom.

In his TEDx Talk, Neale Martin points out that we’ve become so habituated to what is a life-threatening experience—driving a 1.5-ton metal vehicle at 60 miles per hour—that we often become bored and feel compelled to make a phone call or send a text. With increased traffic and longer commutes, the amount of time we spend in vehicles has increased. Americans spent an average of 18.5 hours per week in our vehicles in 2016, up from 16.4 hours in 2012. Driving has become so habitual, thanks to the comfortable environment created for us and the features we’ve all become accustomed to, that we sometimes just get bored.

Today, the interior cabin has started to feel like a living room. Does this mean we’re primed to look for distractions when we’re bored, as we do in our homes while watching TV? Are we willing participants in distracted driving and don’t even realize it?

Consider that habits are a way of thinking or behaving that are acquired through prior repetition, triggered by contextual cues that were reinforced early in the experience—all below conscious awareness. When we’re bored in our living rooms or on the subway or waiting in line at the store, we look at our phones, and when our phone lights up or makes a sound, we look at our phones. We can’t help it because our reward centers in our brains have a critical role in creating new habits. This raises an important question. Are the habits we’ve developed in environments like the living room, triggered by cues of boredom and direct signals from our smartphones, similarly getting triggered when we are driving?

Driving analytics company Zendrive has taken a closer look at the driving distraction problem, using sensor data from more than 3 million drivers and 5.6 billion miles of trips. The study found that drivers are using their phones for 88% of their journeys. New data from the National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that as many as 40,000 people died in motor vehicles crashes in 2016, a 6% rise from the prior year. The study highlights that 47% of motorists are comfortable texting while driving. This is despite the fact that other studies show that mobile phone use in the car can be more distracting than drinking while driving.

The NSC estimates the cost of motor-vehicle deaths, injuries and property damage in 2016 was $432 billion, a 12% increase from the previous year. Those costs include losses in wages, productivity, medical expenses, property damage and administrative expenses. This isn’t going in the right direction, and neither is our vulnerability to distractions.

The answer to my question appears to be yes, my habits have likely changed while driving without my awareness. Small pilot studies are meant to raise questions for future research. Do we need independent voices to help us balance great experiences in our cars with safety? Do we need vehicles to be smarter about distractions? At the very least, we need to better understand distractions, using the tools that can identify what’s distracting us, and by how much, at any given moment.

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