UI Puts Distractions to the Test

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

By Hieu Pham
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Each time Lauren Springer drives and writes a text message on her cell phone, she thinks about the Oprah Winfrey specials about bad driving.

"But I feel like I have to do it," said Springer, 21, who lives in Iowa City.

According to a recent survey by Nationwide Mutual Insurance, one in five U.S. drivers between the ages of 18 and 60 text and drive. But not only are people e-mailing in their cars but reports also show they also are fiddling with iPods.

The problem, researchers and insurance companies say, is that both are distracting and potentially dangerous on the road.

"Most people claim to be above average in abilities; people generally overestimate how well they can drive," said John Lee, director of human factors research at the University of Iowa's National Advanced Driving Simulator, or NADS.

NADS, a driving research facility that has the world's most advanced driving simulator, has been trying to find the relationship between texting and iPod use and motorists' distraction levels. Lee, who oversaw a study where people read messages e-mailed to stereo displays, said the longer the message, the more frequently people took their eyes off the road.

He said it takes only one second of distraction to impair driving.

"There's no absolute value because it depends on what's around you," he said. "But when you look across many studies, one second away from the road is what experienced drivers can tolerate."

Amelia Oliver, 21, carries an iPod Nano everywhere and keeps her cell phone close by. The UI senior said she needs her phone and loves her iPod but not enough to drive with it.

"My friends do it, so I'm usually the one driving," she said. "I think it's absolutely ridiculous. I always feel like I'm easily distracted by things anyway, so if I have too much stuff in my hands, I feel like I'll let the steering wheel go."

Oliver is unlike most drivers between 18 and 27, because 37 percent say they swap messages while driving, according to the Nationwide Mutual Insurance survey. The figure drops to 17 percent among 28- to 44-year-olds and 2 percent for drivers 45 to 60.

IPod use also is higher among young drivers than other age groups. Last year, General Motors Acceptance Corp. polled 5,288 licensed drivers in an Insurance National Drivers Test and found that 20 percent of those between 18 and 24 selected songs on an iPod while driving.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2,600 deaths and 300,000 collisions each year are related to cell phone use.

Iowa's crash data from 2001 to 2003 show 920 crashes involving cell phones or another electronic device.

"Drivers were reported as inattentive or distracted," said Scott Falb, driver safety specialist of the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Falb said the cell phone category was first introduced in the 2001-2003 study. He said figures probably won't show how often cell phones and other devices cause accidents.

"It's dramatically underreported," he said. "They're only listed when drivers admit the use or a credible witness attributes to it."

In response, legislators are cracking down on text messaging and iPod use. Eleven states, including Maryland, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Ohio, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Texas have restricted teens from using cell phones on the road; Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., forbid it for people of any age. Other states have initiated new traffic citations called DWT, or "driving while texting."

In New York, a proposed bill also is looking to ban cell phones, iPods and BlackBerries while crossing the street.

In Iowa, there are no laws restricting cell phone use or iPods on the road.

However, this doesn't mean people can't be cited for reckless driving, which using either device can cause.

"People might drive unusually slow, they might be slow to react if they react at all, or they may weave within their lanes," Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said. "All of these things, if observed by an officer, could lead to that person being stopped. And once it gets extreme ... that person could be charged with careless or reckless driving."

Kelsay said he sees drivers' texting all the time.

"Whether it's listening to an iPod, putting on makeup or texting, it all serves as a distraction," he said.

Despite reports on the widespread uses of iPods and text messaging, there is little evidence directly linking them to car accidents. Kelsay and Lee said this is because people who get into car accidents are not willing to identify the cause.

"If you crash while texting, are you going to admit it?" Lee said.

Also, he said accident reports aren't specific, making it difficult to collect data for research.

Considering the trend of car-friendly technology, researchers said they expect to see new studies undertaken in the next several years.

"Reports show that some people spend 10 percent of their day commuting in cars," said Josh Hoffman, a graduate research assistant for NADS. "So there's that ongoing push by companies to introduce technologies into the car."

This makes it important to study how those technologies affect driving, he said.

Hoffman currently is studying how drivers handle iPods. The study, which began last year, is NAD's first look at iPod use. Researchers there said it won't be the last.