Thursday, May 3, 2012

Optometrists identify seniors with high car-crash risk due to in-car distractions. Are Ford Sync and Dodge Uconnect dangerous?

Drivers with Limited 'Useful Field of View' Should Avoid In-Car Distractions

A study in the April issue of Optometry and Vision Science, official journal of the American Academy of Optometry, has found that a computerized vision test can identify older drivers who are likely to have driving problems related to distractions in the car and who therefore have a high crash risk.

The study authors, led by Joanne M. Wood, PhD, FAAO, of Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia, found that older drivers who show limitations on an optometric vision test called the "Useful Field of View" (UFOV) test make more driving errors when they are distracted. The finding provides a basis for making older drivers safer by predicting who will be more distractible on the road. Older drivers identified as distractible can benefit from minimizing distraction while driving - this makes driving safer for them and the drivers with whom they share the road.

Test Predicts Driving Problems Related to Distraction

The study looked at 92 drivers with an average age of 74 years who underwent the computerized UFOV test. Useful field of view is defined as "the area over which a person can extract information in a single glance without moving his or her head or eye." Drivers with limitations in UFOV are more likely to have problems in demanding driving situations, with an increased risk of crashes.

After the UFOV test, the drivers performed a closed-course driving test three times. On two of the three runs of the driving test, their car was fitted with visual or auditory distracters. The distracters were simple math problems presented on a video screen or audio speaker. The distractors mimic the degree of attention demanded by common in-car experiences such as conversations, navigating an ipod or smart phone, navigation system or in-car entertainment system.

Drivers who had limitations in UFOV were most likely to have problems on the driving test when there were visual or auditory distracters present in the car. These drivers also took longer to complete the driving test. This may be a reason for the slower driving commonly seen in older drivers.

The part of the UFOV test that assessed a driver’s "selective attention” was the best predictor of driving performance.  Drivers with low selective attention scores had a very high crash risk. In contrast, older drivers who did better on the selective attention subtest had better overall performance on the driving test, even with distracters.

Older Drivers at Risk Should Minimize Distractions

Previous research has shown that the UFOV test is highly effective in predicting crash risk among older adults, with or without vision problems. The new study suggests that distractibility is an important contributor to problems in driving performance and crash risk. That conclusion is consistent with recent research on the effects of increased distraction while driving, especially distractions from things like cell phone use.

Every year, cars come outfitted with more gadgets inside from GPS navigation, to touchscreens. My new Dodge Journey includes a car-driver interface (pictured above) that allows the driver to make phone calls by scrolling through an on-screen phone book downloaded from a cell phone and to browse an ipod music library on an dashboard integrated touch screen. These are all distractors and they are an example of how the driving environment is becoming more complex and distracting.

The interface can also be controlled by voice but that is also distracting because it involves paying close attention to audio instructions and prompts.  This study’s results have important implications for the design of these kinds of in-vehicle devices and the safety of older drivers using them.

Here is a funny TV commercial promoting the Dodge Journey's uconnect driver interface system.  Will something like this be a dangerous distraction for older drivers?