Video phone could help curb distracted driving

by Kyle on October 8, 2014

Safer driving possible when cellphone callers can see what the driver sees, study shows.

By Kristy Condon on October 8, 2014

In a driving simulator, study participants were better at avoiding collisions while using a cellphone if the phone gave the caller a video view similar to what a passenger would see.

A new study from new faculty member Kyle Mathewson (psychology) and colleagues at the University of Illinois has shown that risks associated with driving while using a cell phone can be significantly reduced when the conversation partner is shown live video from the driver’s perspective. The one-way, hands-free video phone was shown to be superior to a hands-free cellular phone, since research has shown that holding the phone is not the distracting element, but rather the conversation itself.

The video provides the caller with visual information to help them recognize challenges for the driver and to adjust or pause the conversation to avoid presenting additional distractions—more like a conversation with a passenger. “A passenger in the car with the driver is not nearly as distracting as a conversation partner on the phone,” explains Mathewson. “[This is] due to their modulation of the conversation along with the drive, as well as increased references to traffic assisting the driver with the task.”

Mathewson says the idea was born from a Skype conversation he had with his brother during a long drive: “I decided to show him video of the road as we spoke, and we brainstormed about how this might help to make our conversation less distracting as he could see the important events on the road.”

The study took place in a driving simulator and tested four different scenarios: the driver alone in the car, in the car with the friend, or with the friend on speaker phone from another room (with and without video). As expected, speaking to someone on a cell phone while driving was the most dangerous of the conditions since they had no awareness of what was going on inside or outside the car. “The hands-free phone was detrimental to driving performance and caused increased collisions with merging vehicles,” says Mathewson.

However, when the conversation partner was shown a view of the driving scene and the drivers face, although there was no difference for the driver, the chance of collision lowered to match the scenario in which the friend was a passenger in the car. Mathewson attributes this improvement to changes in the conversation. “The friend could now identify obstacles, warn the driver, and stop talking so the driver could focus. They talked about traffic more on the video phone, for instance.”

Mathewson says the video technology could eventually be integrated into vehicle designs. “We hope to get sponsorship from the automotive or insurance industries in order to study the feasibility of implementing these technologies and organizing testing in realistic or real driving situations.”

The researchers are now working on a follow-up study involving older drivers, a group known to be more prone to distraction and to have differences in their attention such as poorer multitasking ability, as well as teen drivers who are faced with greater distractions while they drive.

The study was published in in Psychological Science and conducted at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, with support from the Office of Naval Research.

Kyle Mathewson was previously a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alberta. His current research at the U of A involves using human behavioural studies, neuroimaging and electrophysiological recording to gain understanding of the visual attention system.

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