- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A pioneering research project designed to capture people’s behavior behind the wheel “in real time” shows that drivers perform in ways that are anything but natural by normal safety standards.

Participants smoked, talked on cell phones, checked e-mail, applied makeup and even changed clothes, among other acts of questionable need, while cameras and other devices recorded their every move.

Such behaviors caused 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of all near-crashes that occurred during the project’s duration, according to statistics compiled by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) in Blacksburg, Va., which conducted the Naturalistic Driving Study for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Virginia Department of Transportation also contributed support.

The study indicates how willfully blind people can be to dangers on the roadway. Driver inattention was cited as the chief factor in 82 crashes, 761 near-crashes and 8,295 so-called critical incidents.

Some 240 drivers were charted while operating 100 vehicles over 2 million miles for a period of 12 to 13 months. Drivers’ ages ranged from 18 to 73; 60 percent were men, 40 percent were women. Each was paid $1,800 to participate. Six car models were used, with selection based partially on informal surveys of area parking lots.

The extent of errant activity isn’t surprising, given the multitasking existence of many Washington-area commuters. However, that these were volunteers who knew they were being observed for posterity reveals how comfortable people have become with technology’s place in their lives. All cars were equipped with video and sensor devices that could measure how often and how long a driver’s eyes strayed from the road.

People who looked away from the road at the wrong moment were twice as likely to get into trouble. Looking away for two seconds or more definitely was risky, research proved.

Preliminary results of the five-year, $4 million study, considered the most far-reaching of its kind, were announced in April, with sponsors saying analysis of data is ongoing, depending in part on future funding.

VTTI’s Center for Technology Development was responsible for innovative data-collection systems used throughout the study. These included a sensor called an accelerometer that measures how hard a driver accelerates, brakes or swerves and a digital imaging system that shows where the center of a vehicle is in relation to lane markings on either side of the road.

Dialing a cell phone — but not necessarily talking on one — raised the chance of a crash three times, causing about 7 percent of accidents. Such an activity is illegal in the District, where by law people are prohibited from using a hand-held cell phone while driving. Virginia has no such law; Maryland restricts drivers younger than 18 with learner’s permits from using phones while driving.

Applying makeup was found to be even more dangerous than talking or dialing a phone number. A driver reaching for a moving object such as a sliding book or spectacle case in the car was nine times more likely to have an accident or a near-accident. Tired or sleepy drivers increased chances of a crash by four to six times.

The degree to which distractions helped cause accidents surprised researchers. They were especially impressed that drowsiness among drivers during the early morning — rather than in the evening — was a factor, indicating that people are not getting enough sleep. Drowsiness, which researchers say is under-reported in police crash investigations, was a contributing factor for up to 24 percent of crashes and near-crashes.

Though a study of this magnitude might be expected to reveal some more fundamental truths about American behavior on the road, the officials involved say that similar data previously could be obtained only from simulated crashes, police reports, eyewitnesses or drivers’ own recollections, which are far from reliable. The study was released at a time when national highway fatalities have been on the increase. According to government figures, 43,200 people died on the road in 2005, up from 42,636 in 2004.

Previously, VTTI did a study on the effect of fatigue on long-haul truck drivers, but “collecting data continuously and storing it never has been done for a full year with so many people,” says Charlie Klauer, the project’s manager, who holds a doctorate in industrial and systems engineering from Virginia Tech university. “We have known for a long time that different types of driver distractions and behaviors decrease drive performance, but we have never been able to directly link the behavior with crashes and near-crashes.”

After suggesting they use seat belts, participants were told only to drive as they would normally. Ms. Klauer admits that she herself forgot the cameras were on while driving some leased cars used in the study.

“I was caught in my own thoughts driving down the interstate.” Further, she says, “we saw lots of people doing lots of things they wouldn’t do if they had thought about the cameras on them.”

“Seeing [the behavior] in black and white, you realize how quickly the situation on the road can change,” notes Sherri Box, VTTI communications manager, who says only selected video images were released, and only to the press. As part of a contractual agreement, participants’ names were withheld for privacy’s sake. The institute is doing a study of teens’ driving habits for the National Institutes of Health.

“We’ve always known that close to 95 percent of crashes are the result of human error, so you are talking about research involving most crashes in the United States,” says Rae Tyson, director of public affairs for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He explained that the value of the study stems from better understanding why people behave the way they do as a way to helping figure out remedies to improve matters.

“You cannot make sound policy decisions based on someone’s common sense. You have to do it based on science,” he says.

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