Two-second rule for distracted driving can mean life or death

The large rubber strip that I was speeding toward on Ventura Freeway near Los Angeles looked easy enough to avoid. I swerved, but not enough.

That strip was metal, however, and it ripped through my right front tire. Moments later, I was driving 80 mph with one bare metal wheel, sparks flying. I pulled onto a median to await a tow truck, worried for our safety as cars screamed past.

I had been looking at my wife for about four seconds before glancing back at the road. Had I just become a victim of distracted driving? The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration would probably say yes.

Drivers should never take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds at a time, the agency says. The Auto Alliance, a manufacturers’ trade group, agrees. “The odds of a crash double if your eyes are off the road for more than two seconds,” said Wade Newton, a spokesman.

Just two seconds can be the life-or-death difference between hitting that metal strip, or a deer, and avoiding it. In 2016, more than 9 percent of U.S. traffic deaths – or 3,450 – were linked to distracted driving. With these facts in mind, the government, automakers and tech companies are dreaming up new ways to keep drivers’ eyes on the road at a time when there are more opportunities for distraction than ever.

One thing that does not work is an appeal to common sense. Asking people to just say no to their gadgets and social media feeds cannot overcome the temptation to check on them, even while behind the wheel.

Which is why many states now forbid the use of devices if they need to be held, unless they’re connected through the vehicle’s built-in screen or can be operated with voice commands. But even that may not be enough.

“Laws against distracted driving do not reduce crashes,” said Jessica Cicchino, a vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Instead, NHTSA and the Auto Alliance have come up with a set of voluntary design guidelines to limit distractions and make driving safer.

Under these guidelines, makers are encouraged to design screens that do not obstruct the driver’s field of view, use internationally recognized icons and symbols, allow the driver to control the pace of input, and disable information not pertinent to driving when in motion.

Given that they’re suggestions, their use varies. Volkswagens lock out navigation input using the touch screen when the vehicle is in motion, while some Audis don’t. A list of favorite radio stations disappears from the Alfa Romeo Stelvio’s screen after a few seconds, before the driver may have had a chance to choose. And some vehicles position digital displays above the standard dashboard.

“We’re still seeing things that NHTSA says not to use while driving, being used,” said Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research at AAA, the auto association. “Automakers are making it really easy for drivers to do multiple things.”

Nelson added, “People are accessing Facebook while they’re driving. We’ve seen the biggest increase in fatal crashes in the last 50 years, with more pedestrian and cyclist deaths.”

Rather than try to stop distracted driving behavior, manufacturers are offering technological solutions to hopefully lessen the distractions.

They include features like head-up displays, which project speed and other information onto the windshield in front of the driver; and audio alerts when the vehicle drifts into another lane without signaling. Others include blind-spot detection, automatic braking when about to hit another vehicle or pedestrian, and cross-traffic warnings when a vehicle is about to pass behind the driver in a parking lot.

These technologies work. According to Cicchino of the Insurance Institute, forward-collision warning systems with automatic braking cut rear-end crashes by 50 percent, and rear cross-traffic alerts reduce accidents by 33 percent.

Distractions like eating or grooming have a long history for drivers, and now smartphones are adding to them. “There is evidence to suggest that distracted driving is getting worse,” said Charlie Klauer, lead for the teen risk and injury prevention group at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

But the severity is unclear. “There is no correlation between fatalities and the use of smartphones,” said Cicchino of the Insurance Institute. “Distraction caused by electronic devices is replacing that caused by eating, drinking and talking to passengers while driving.”

The problem is especially acute for teenagers. “They’re not judicious when they engage in distracted behaviors,” Klauer said. “They’re not good at detecting hazards.”

Smartphone makers are trying to help drivers focus, too.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto allow drivers to use some of their familiar smartphone apps on a vehicle’s built-in display. A recent AAA study of five cars and trucks conducted with the University of Utah found that, on average, using voice commands with CarPlay or Android Auto reduced visual and mental distractions by 15 seconds, compared with the vehicles’ own infotainment systems.

In addition, visual and mental demands for both the Apple and Google systems were moderate, in contrast to a rating of “high” for the built-in systems of test vehicles.

It takes automakers longer than the smartphone companies to develop and adjust their products, so there is lag time in changes. But less-distracting infotainment systems are beginning to appear.

Acura’s 2019 RDX SUV puts its infotainment screen at eye level so a driver doesn’t need to look down. Coupled with a head-up display, a driver can make selections without losing sight of the road.

At Chrysler, KeySense technology enables a specific key for its Pacifica minivan to be programmed so that the user cannot raise the radio volume above a certain level (or listen at all when the front seat belts are not fastened) or exceed a preset speed limit. (Pay attention, parents of teenage drivers.)

To further mitigate distracted driving, “we’re investigating the use of a camera to detect driver eye movements and incorporating a head-up display,” said Dominic Ronzello, Chrysler’s senior manager of human-machine interface and ergonomics.

These design elements are making the best of a bad situation; using one’s hands to input information is bound to distract even the best driver.

“The direction to go is voice recognition,” said Matthias Erb, Volkswagen of America’s chief engineering officer. “And when we add a head-up display, this will improve safety significantly.”

Erb said VWs would eventually be able to learn an individual driver’s behavior and move certain functions higher up on the vehicle’s display to curb distraction.

“The problem is software,” Erb said. “The delay in vehicle software development means that currently we cannot compete with smartphones. But vehicle over-the-air software updates will eventually come.”

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