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Measuring driver inattention
The Providence Journal


June 13, 2005

When you're at the wheel and talking on the phone, are you really watching the road? Do you notice the oncoming traffic, the road signs, the bystanders waiting to cross? Can you tell that another driver is trying to pass you, or that the car up ahead is hitting its brakes? Manbir Sodhi wants to know.

The chairman of the industrial-engineering department at the University of Rhode Island is now studying the attention span of motorists who talk on the phone while they drive.

This is familiar ground for Sodhi, who studied the matter in 2000 and found that drivers with cell phones weren't as attentive to the road as those who were phone-free.

Five years later, there are more cell-phone users, and theoretically, more talking while driving. Now, Sodhi is revisiting the study with more precise tools for measuring driver inattention, thanks to a new program designed by graduate student Matt Petti.

Connecticut is poised to join New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., as the only areas in the nation that ban people from using handheld cell phones while driving. The Connecticut governor is expected to sign the bill approved by legislators last week.

Researchers at the University of Utah have found that cell-phone users had the same reaction times as drunken drivers - and that teenagers on the phone had about the same driving skills as elderly drivers with both hands on the wheel.

While the laws all target handheld cell phones, scientific studies have found no difference between motorists holding cell phones or talking into headsets.

The conversation causes the distraction, not holding the phone.

Sodhi remembered a man who participated in his 2000 study. "He told us after seeing what he was doing, it changed how he used the phone," Sodhi said.

Out on the road, you don't need a computer program to pick out the motorists who are talking on the phone. They drive slower and their vehicles tend to wander out of the lanes of travel, Sodhi said.

"It seems they're not aware of other cars around them," he said.

Sodhi wants to replicate the real driving experience as much as possible for his study.

While other researchers use simulators, Sodhi is sending his drivers right onto South Kingstown, R.I., roads.

He mapped out a 6.5-mile loop that winds through town streets and rural roads. Drivers encounter street signs, traffic lights, oncoming traffic, changing speed limits, pedestrians and bicyclists - in short, a typical drive.

The specialized program developed by Petti records what the driver sees, movement of the eyes, and tracks the route by GPS. That way, the researchers can track exactly where the drivers are when they react to any distractions, Sodhi said.

Back at the lab, the researchers can plug in the program and a wide computer screen will show them three scenes at the same time: the GPS map of the route, the video of where the driver was looking and the eye-movement graph. A jump in the graphic tells them something caught the driver's attention; they can then pinpoint exactly on the map where the driver was, and look at the video to see where the driver was looking.

To establish a baseline, Sodhi and his students monitored several subjects as they drove the route. They found common characteristics among the non-distracted drivers, such as how often they glanced at oncoming traffic.

Now, Sodhi and the students are testing drivers under several distractions. One test will have drivers seeking out an unfamiliar road. Another will have drivers looking for a particular street sign. The last will be putting drivers on the phone and talking to them along the route.

Sodhi expects the fieldwork to conclude soon, and the findings submitted to a scientific journal within a few months.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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