Hundreds of studies have been conducted in the past decade by researchers in psychology and traffic safety on the impact of talking on cell phones and texting while driving.
The most recent research, by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, found that truck drivers who text message while driving increase their risk of a crash by 23 times.
Virginia Tech emphasized that it used observations of driving in real-world road conditions, deploying cameras and instruments installed in participant’s vehicles who together drove more than 6 million miles.
The cameras and other gear analyzed eye-glance movements. When a driver’s eyes were looking away from the forward roadway to dial a cell phone number or text a message, the drivers were judged to have the highest risk.
The summary of Virginia Tech’s findings was issued one week after government documents from 2003 showing the dangers of driving while talking on a cell phone were released.
The government documents, in turn, were publicized following a Freedom of Information Act request by two consumer advocacy groups, the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen.
The Center for Auto Safety’s executive director, Clarence Ditlow, went so far to say that the government documents and accompanied research showed the dangers of talking on a cell phone while driving were as hazardous as drinking and driving.
Ditlow also called attention to a researcher at the University of Utah, David Strayer, who has written a dozen papers on the adverse impact of driving while using a cell phone.
Strayer’s latest research showed that drivers practicing in a driving simulator could not improve their safe-driving ability while using a hands-free cell phone.
The general point of the research found that talking alone on the phone is distracting, Ditlow and others said.
However, Virginia Tech, in releasing its findings, took time to defend its “naturalistic” method of using real-world driving, calling it the “gold standard” for such studies.
It also said that “a driving simulator is not actual driving,” and that the results from simulator research are “at odds” from real-world studies.
Virginia Tech did not elaborate on the quantitative difference, but noted that drivers are somehow able to make adjustments to hazards in the real world that they don’t make in the simulator, meaning the results from real world studies sometimes show less of a hazard from distractions than do simulators.
“It’s not to say there isn’t a place for simulators,” said Rich Hanowski, director of the Center for Truck and Bus Safety at Virginia Tech, in an interview.
“But the perceived risk is very different in outside conditions.”
These statements are indicative of the mini-debate that has cropped up over whether real world tests need to be used in such studies instead of using tests from driving simulators.
As one might expect, the differences in the methods and the findings have led some researchers to recommend — what else? — more studies.
Virginia Tech’s Hanowski said that any person who has driven a driving simulator would know it is not the real world, since the road scene is usually a cartoon and very different from what one detects and perceives in the real world. “It’s fair to say that nobody has died in a driving simulator crash,” he quipped.
Also, simulator studies might only include 60 or 100 subjects, which can’t compare to the 6 million road miles studied over several years by Virginia Tech, he said.
Virginia Tech also criticized findings from simulator studies that suggested that talking and listening on a cell were as dangerous as the visual distraction of making a call or other tasks.
Talking or listening to a cell phone allowed drivers to maintain eyes on the road and were not as severe as the dangers of texting, the institute added.
Virginia Tech also challenged the assumption that cell phone use was similar to alcohol use, calling such claims “greatly exaggerate[d].”
“If talking on cell phones was as risky as driving while drunk, the number of fatal crashes would have increased roughly 50% in the last decade, instead of remaining largely unchanged,” Virginia Tech added in its statement.
When asked to comment on the challenges made by Virginia Tech to simulator research, Strayer e-mailed this comment to Computerworld:
“With all due respect, the Va. Tech press release railing against driving simulators is just silliness,” he said. “Driving simulators have a long history in studying driver behavior (similar to flight simulators)… They have a clear track record.”
Strayer said Virginia Tech seems to have ignored two studies based on epidemiological research that showed the risks of using cell phones while driving were four times higher than with no distraction.
“Observational reports like those at Va. Tech are important, but they cannot establish causal links between use and impairment. At best, they can establish a correlation, not a causal inference,” Strayer concluded.
While there may be no final word between scientists on the subject of simulator vs. real world, Hanowski said that researchers using simulators at least should validate the use of the simulator to reflect the real world.
And that, of course, means more research.