Driver Distraction: Are We Mistaking a Symptom for the Problem?

In recent years it seems we have been continuously bombarded by research and popular press articles dealing with the dangers of driver distraction, particularly that resulting from the use of cell phones or other telematic systems while behind the wheel. Based on the volume and vitriolic nature of these articles, one would suppose that the U.S. was undergoing a dramatic increase in the number of accidents on our roadways, largely as a function of operators focusing on these devices, rather than on the road. In reality, the opposite is true.

Fifty years worth of vigilance research suggests that our entire perspective on the "driver distraction" problem may be incorrect. It is possible that we are fixating on the result of a problem, rather than on a problem cause. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that high workload levels negatively affect performance; what is less well-recognized is that too low of a workload level has virtually the same impact. The last fifty years have seen a steady decline in driver task demand through the implementation of a variety of innovations. What if we have decreased it too far? If so, the current "increase" in "driver distraction" may simply indicate that we have reduced the vehicle-related driver workload to such a level that drivers are actively seeking alternative attention-demanding tasks in order to raise themselves back to a more optimal workload level.

Date Published: 2013-04-08
Author(s): David Curry, John Meyer, Aaron Jones

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