At Last! Technology That Boosts Attentiveness Behind the Wheel


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While Ford and other automakers are knocking themselves out to find new ways to distract drivers (a la Internet connectivity), I was delighted to hear that some others are actually coming up with things that will reduce distraction for drivers and make the roads safer for all of us. 

MIT’s Technology Review reports that distracted driving kills an estimated 3,000 people yearly in the United States, triggering calls for bans on one of the causes, mobile phone use in vehicles. Now, however, the wireless industry is ramping up its anti-distraction efforts.  AT&T Labs has developed a vibrating steering wheel that promises to deliver navigation information to drivers more safely than on-screen instructions or turn-by-turn GPS commands.

In the prototype, a clockwise pattern of vibrations on the steering wheel means “turn right”; counterclockwise means “turn left,” says the MIT report.  While the initial focus has been on improving delivery of GPS navigation instructions, other applications are under development, such as notifying drivers if cars are in their blind spots. The technology underlying these tactile cues is known as haptics.

AT&T’s study of the gadget in driving simulators found that it provided clear benefits: participants’ eyes stayed on the road longer. When younger drivers—with an average age of 25—used the haptic steering wheel along with the usual visual and auditory methods of receiving navigation instructions, their inattentiveness (defined as the proportion of time their eyes were off the road) dropped 3.1 percent, says the MIT report.

This is particularly encouraging news, because one of the main culprits in youthful inattention to the road is certainly their tendency to text each other at any and all times.  Admittedly, 3.1 percent is not a huge drop in inattentiveness, but a few lives saved is certainly better than none.  At the same time, we must not make the mistake of thinking that such technology advances are sufficient to allow us to ignore the horribly irresponsible behavior of texting or other screen-based behavior while driving. 

It will also be interesting to see if auto insurers drop premiums for vehicles equipped with anti-distraction devices.  Obviously, such vehicles represent a lower risk and should cost less to insure.  I’ll be looking for Flo to include that on her list of discounts in her next Progressive commercial.


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