Talking Usability

Talking Usability: Inattentive Behavior and Smartphones

One day while driving, I was looking down at my smartphone to tap the numbers to make a phone call. My attention to the road was only interrupted for a few seconds. When I looked up, I was too close for comfort to the car in front of me. I slowed down to let the car in front of me gain more distance. I was lucky, but the situation made me think about how smartphones affects our attention.

We are easily distracted when we drive because we have so much on our mind. There is a lot going on in our brain when we drive. For example, we must be attentive to pedestrians, other vehicles, speed of our vehicle, weather conditions, and road conditions to name a few. Regaining our concentration can take several seconds, which can mean the difference of being in control of the vehicle and not. Many people drive and use Smartphones to read email and view postings on social media. Why? I don’t know.

Human factors experts at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) conducted a study of how driver inattention leads to collisions. With support from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Virginia Tech researchers tracked driver behavior in 100 vehicles equipped with video and sensor devices for one year. During that time, the vehicles traveled nearly 2 million miles and were involved in 69 crashes and 761 near-crashes. Researchers found that nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involved driver inattention up to three seconds before the event.

A study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that hearing and vision share a limited neural capacity. Brain scans from 13 volunteers found that when they were given demanding visual tasks—quickly identifying symbols on the screen—at the same time as sounds, the brain response to sound was significantly reduced. Their ability to detect sounds also failed more often.

Today, cars are equipped with plenty of distractions: rear view cameras, onboard text messages, digital personal assistants, cell phone, satellite radio, GPS, and streaming Internet to broadcast television and movies to people seated in the backseat; however, using them while driving decreases attention to the road. Somebody thought that voice-activated commands would make it easier to use these technologies, but voice activated commands are just another thing to think about when driving. Give me the good old days, when a car with AM/FM radio and cassette player was cutting edge technology.

To learn more about how technologies make us more accident prone read Dangerous Distractions by Amy Novotney

To learn why looking at a screen might interfere with response to sound read Why Do Phones Cause Inattention Deafness? by Robert A. Lavine Ph.D.