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Improving automotive safety. (I’m all for it.)

We seem to have our share of automotive-related posts on the Critical Link blog, but that’s because there’s so much interesting technology going into cars these days. And it’s technology that most of us will use, or at least have access to, at some point. Even those of us who really enjoy driving may not mind letting technology take over once in a while, say for having the car parallel park itself in a tight spot.

One aspect of automotive technology I read about recently takes on the distracted driver problem, which is getting worse as the number of distractions is on the rise. (Remember back in the day when the only distractions were turning on the radio and making sure your kids didn’t unbuckle their seat belts?)

Most American drivers admit to using phones in their cars, and plenty of those folks aren’t just talking, they’re texting and doing everything else you can do with a smartphone. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that phone use is a major contributor to accidents.  Much as we’d like to think that good behavior – i.e., forgoing any phoning-while-driving – will solve this problem, we all know that what we need is making using the phone while in the driver seat safer.

In April, a group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon presented their research on distracted drivers at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

“Dr Kim, Dr Chun and Dr Dey recruited 25 volunteers, aged from 19 to 69, to make road trips about 20km long. Every volunteer wore five motion sensors—one on each wrist and foot and one on his head—as well as a chest strap that recorded his breathing and heart rates. The car was fitted with an inward-looking camera to observe the volunteer’s “peripheral actions” while driving, such as eating, fiddling with the radio, turning on the windscreen wipers and steering one-handed. A second camera faced outward, to assess the state of nearby traffic. And a “black box” recorder took readings from the car itself, such as the throttle position, slope of the road and engine speed.” (Source: The Economist)

The researchers determined what was going on when drivers were showing signs of stress – e.g., faster heart rates – and when they were doing something (like adjusting the radio) that is peripheral to the main action of driving. They then figured out what might be reasonably safe to do (adjust the radio, listen to a voice message) under what conditions.

“Obviously, the average driver is not going to want to wear body sensors all the time. But as the team report at the conference, they have used the data they collected to write a piece of software which can, based on inputs from the black box alone, identify the safest moment for an interruption from a phone with 92% accuracy. Moreover, Dr Kim says, a future version of the software could be tweaked to add in personal preferences. One driver might prefer to be interrupted when on a straight, flat road, for example. Another might like to wait until he was stopped at a red light.”

(The report, which contains some interesting technical information, is linked in the paragraph above. A few points of interest: The cameras used were smartphone cameras. An Onboard Diagnostic device provide the info on what was going on with the car itself, e.g., position and speed), transmitting the data to one of the smartphones via Bluetooth. YEI 3-Space sensors were placed on the research subjects’ forehead, wrists, and feet. A Bio-Harness chest belt captured cardio and respiratory data.)

The article also mentioned a couple of other distracted-driver safety initiatives.

Especially as a father of three  including a relatively new driver –  I’m all in favor of anything that improves automotive safety.