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What’s Really Causing Crashes?

Governments have passed anti-texting laws, and everyone is developing autonomous cars, but we have devolved in addressing driver distraction. Daydreaming and drive-thru coffee may be the biggest culprits of all.

Steve Tengler will be moderating a session at the WardsAuto User Experience Conference Oct. 1 in Novi, MI.

Last June marked the demise of Dr. Seuss’s famed real tree that supposedly inspired the Truffula from the infamous children’s book, The Lorax.

With its passing, I cannot help but think how much the world has changed since, not only my childhood, but just the past 7-8 years since publishing “The Lorax of Driver Distraction” (Jan 2012, Connected World Magazine), where I spoke for so many engineers biting their tongues and suffering in silence. 

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

Many countries have passed dozens of anti-texting laws, corporations on multiple continents have discussed autonomous driving, and yet we have devolved rather than evolved in addressing driver distraction (or “driver inattention” as I like to call it, so the culpability is aptly shared).

As with my 2012 driver-distraction article, I’m not shackled by the automotive manufacturers that employed me – three of them major vehicle brands – and can speak from my 25-plus years of experience without hindrance and say what other engineers want to scream from the mountaintop. Let’s review those 2012 topics and see what’s changed:

Engineering Without Frog DNA

The first diatribe of the original article was to tattle on journalists who don’t dig deep enough to understand a topic and the quasi-researchers who did not base their headline-making conclusions on real-world driving.

The researchers substituted driving simulators in labs and offered lots of juicy soundbites about driver distraction based on mediocre science. I likened this to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park where the inexpensive and faulty way of creating dinosaurs was to inject a cheaper, easier solution by grabbing strains of frog DNA. Today, flawed shortcuts are more popular than ever. 

We live in an era of quick search engines and short deadlines. For instance, the top hit when searching for “driver-distraction statistics” is a website that amasses erroneous reporting such as: “People are as impaired when they drive and talk on a cell phone as when they drive intoxicated,” which has no basis in reality and is refuted by millions of miles of real-world testing and crash statistics in various states.

Another top hit is an injury law firm that provides a laundry list of ranked distractions based on no cited studies and self-reported opinions of drivers, which have been shown to be inaccurate.

That said, in the past few years the U.S. government has funded millions of dollars of naturalistic driving studies – real drivers on real roads with real vehicles equipped with sensors and recording devices – and the threat of texting is real. A vehicle is twenty-three (23) times more likely to crash if the driver is texting; mostly due to eyes off the road, not simply talking on a cellphone.

That’s not frog DNA. That’s legitimate, peer-reviewed research done by true scientists. Yet do the real-world crash statistics support this? No. The most recently available Fatal Traffic Crash Data (2017) from NHTSA show an 8.2% decline in distraction-related deaths (3,166 fatalities) after a 2.2% decline in 2016 (3,450 fatalities).

The Distraction Regarding Distraction

My second conclusion was that our society wants to blame the phone/telematics providers or automakers when, in fact, they don’t understand the facts regarding the difference between distracted and inattentive driving. This has not changed since 2012.

For instance, even if driver self-assessment was admissible in court, 61% of distracted drivers report they were daydreaming with only 14% citing cell phone distraction, making “lost in thought” as the runaway No.1 cause of distracted driving.

A 2018 report shows 44% of coffee buyers purchased coffee at a drive-thru in the past 24-hours, yet “food and drink” continually is listed among the top causes of distraction-related crashes, with coffee at the forefront.

And a 2013 naturalistic study found a parent’s eyes were off-the-road on average 21% of any given trip with kids in the backseat, concluding it was 12 times more dangerous than cellphone distraction and two times more dangerous than driving under the influence.

We continue to want to blame someone else, but we need to stop daydreaming about another reality.

Distraction vs. Inattention

In my 2012 article, I suggested a change to our collective taxonomy: driver distraction should refer to an unavoidable incident (such as a driver being stung by a bee) while driver inattention should describe scenarios such as daydreaming, fast food and child supervision. That way we can properly create system-level Failure Mode and Effects Analyses (FMEAs) addressing separate root causes and literally drive ourselves to a better future.

My suggestion may have been heard. Google Trends for “driver distraction” since the original publication appears to be unaffected, but “driver inattention” has trended upwards and surpasses its predecessor in the past year. Are we blind to blaming ourselves? No. But we must change how we address root causes, starting with ourselves.

No Automatic Solution

Back in 2012, autonomous vehicles had not hit the global consciousness. Some of us worked on them behind closed doors at vehicle manufacturers, but they were considered by the public to be fantasies, such as Knight Rider or The Love Bug, not as future purchases.

Since then, countless companies have announced they intend to launch autonomous vehicles, some as soon as this year. Yet even companies supposedly on-track to hit the market have realized autonomous is not synonymous with a driverless car.

“People sometimes will extrapolate (autonomous) to mean now it requires no observation. This is not the case,” says Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla. And many companies including Uber, Ford and Waymo have either delayed the start of production or scaled back functionality.

“We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” Ford CEO Jim Hackett said in April. Waymo’s CEO backed-off a 2017 proclamation that “fully self-driving cars are here” in 2018 when he said, “autonomy always will have some constraints.”

There are a variety of reasons. Lidar struggles with snow. Cameras are better with object detection but have trouble in low light. An abundance of sensors creates difficulties with sensor fusion and complex artificial intelligence. And the complexities of day-to-day driving – such as double-parked delivery trucks, gesticulating traffic cops and, yes, even grandmas in wheelchairs chasing ducks in the street – confuse non-human brains.

So, what do we do? We must stop daydreaming about autonomous cars and focus on immediate solutions. Is the answer legislation that mandates “eyes-on-the-road” (driver attention) and technology in every vehicle akin to electronic stability control or back-up cameras? Probably.

But first there needs to be real-world, naturalistic, statistically significant results showing an improvement in accidents or near-accidents when using a specific technology, so we don’t keep mandating features that only impact consumer wallets.

And, oh the places we’ll go, if some politicians get the courage to prohibit drive-thru coffee.

Steve TenglerSteve Tengler has worked in the auto industry on the connected car for over a quarter of a century for some of the top brands in the world: Ford, Nissan and OnStar. He now is a Principal at the global consultancy Kugler Maag Inc. www.kuglermaag.us He has 40-plus publications, 50-plus patents, and a BSE and MSE from The University of Michigan. Contact him at [email protected].

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