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UNSW Expert identifies major causes of driver distraction

The driver, vehicle design and traffic signs are the three biggest causes of distractions on the road.

According to Emeritus Professor Michael Regan, a psychologist who specialises in transportation human factors at the UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, traffic control devices, including destination signs, warning signs and traffic lights, need to be designed from a human-centred perspective to be effective.

“There is a fine line between what should be capturing our attention to assist us along that journey and what is a risk of being a distraction,” said Professor Regan.

“For example, things such as advertising billboards along highways draw the driver’s attention to whatever is being promoted in the ad. But at the same time, they are a source of distraction and may instead draw the driver’s attention away from things that are critical for safe driving,” he said.

“There are many factors that come into play when designing a transport environment that is safe for all users, but it needs to be designed from a human-centred perspective because, ultimately, we’ll be the ones using it.”

The cockpit design of vehicles has changed significantly over recent years with a shift to more interactive features and functions such as touch screen displays. While these are meant to enhance the driving experience, they can often be a distraction for the driver.

“Research has shown that approximately 70 per cent of distractions are within the vehicle,” said Professor Regan.

“Actions such as selecting radio stations with touchscreen displays, entering destinations into navigation systems or even reaching for something while the vehicle is in motion, are all distractions and pose a huge risk to the driver. If you take your eyes off the road for two seconds, it’s been shown that you double your risk of a collision.”

He added, “Any longer than two seconds, and the risk of a crash increases exponentially.”

Any traffic control device to be effective, according to Professor Regan, should have three key features. It should be conspicuous, legible and the message itself must be comprehensible.

Drawing from his work at the UNSW Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation (rCITI), Professor Regan noted that when a traffic light or sign lacks one or more of these characteristics, it can instead become a distraction.

Professor Regan suggests a system similar to the Australian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) needs to be developed to rate how safe the design of roads are from a human-centred perspective.

Although humans will still be prone to conditions that may degrade driving performance and safety he said.

“Road users who are cognitively distracted, for example, when talking on their mobile phone about something complex or emotional, may see a traffic light change colour but not respond to it,” he said.

“That’s what we call intentional blindness, it’s the look-but-fail-to-see phenomenon, and it’s an issue for drivers and pedestrians too.”

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