Don't Look Away From The Roadway

Nov 12, 2013 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

For the past 25 years, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) has pioneered techniques and technologies that address myriad transportation challenges and questions. We have overseen construction of and research on a smart highway (VTTI is home to the Virginia Smart Road) and have led projects that assess: infrastructure, such as lighting and pavement; innovative ways to improve mobility; and vehicle designs for handling and crashworthiness. We are currently conducting groundbreaking research into the next generation of transportation innovation: connected and automated vehicles.

But it is our research into inattentive and distracted driving that has prompted a national discussion about and subsequent changes in transportation policies. Using a data collection system designed in-house to capture the behaviors of drivers in real-world conditions--what we refer to as a naturalistic driving study -- we started out more than a decade ago instrumenting vehicles for the 100-Car Study. This was the first large-scale naturalistic driving study ever undertaken and included 109 primary drivers and 132 secondary drivers who drove instrumented vehicles for 12 to 13 months in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. VTTI researchers collected 42,000 hours of data from about two million vehicle miles of driving.

During the same timeframe, we evaluated 34 tractor-trailers instrumented with a drowsy driver warning system created to detect physiological indications of driver drowsiness and alert the driver.

The results of these naturalistic driving studies were a wakeup call.

The 100-Car Study found that 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes were due to driver inattention caused by distraction, fatigue or general inattention. The 34-truck study found that texting while driving increased the risk of a safety-critical event by 23 times.

What this told us was that the majority (between 70 to 90 percent) of crashes and near-crashes occur because the driver is looking away from the forward roadway, either because they are distracted or because of fatigue. The "23 times" statistic from the 34-truck study was touted nationally, from New York Times to the Ad Council to AT&T. VTTI was subsequently asked to participate in the inaugural White House summit on distracted driving. As a result of that summit, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a call to end distracted driving. To date, 41 states and the District of Columbia have banned text messaging for all drivers.

After drowsiness was found during our studies to be a leading risk within the truck driving population, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration evaluated its hours-of-service regulations, such as off-duty time, on-duty time, breaks and re-start provisions, and ultimately reduced by 12 the maximum number of hours a truck driver can work within a week.

Our next set of naturalistic driving studies found similar risks associated with distracted driving and fatigue. A teen driving study determined that teens are four times more likely to get into a crash or near-crash while distracted than their adult counterparts. Subsequent light-vehicle studies showed that driver drowsiness is a significantly greater factor in crashes and near-crashes than was previously thought. Like heavy-truck drivers, light-vehicle drivers get into crashes and near-crashes between 15 and 20 percent of the time while at least moderately drowsy (previous estimates were between 4 and 8 percent).

Using participants' cell phone records in addition to data collection systems, VTTI researchers found this year that texting while driving resulted in drivers taking their eyes off the road for an average of 23 seconds total. Activities performed when completing a call -- reaching for a phone, looking up a contact, and dialing the number -- increased crash/near-crash risk by three times.

VTTI continues to lead national naturalistic studies that will expand what we know about the risks of distracted driving using larger sampling sizes and more varied driver types. For example, we are the prime contractor for the Second Strategic Highway Research Program of the National Academies. This project has collected continuous video and sensor data for more than 3,000 drivers, 5.5 million trips, and close to 1,000 crashes. We are conducting the first large-scale motorcycle study designed to explore motorcycle crash causation and develop crash countermeasures. Motorcyclists are a driving population overrepresented in crash statistics, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finding that, during 2010, one in seven traffic fatalities and one in six occupant fatalities were motorcyclists.

VTTI researchers are currently working on a program that provides real-time monitoring of teen drivers, with immediate feedback provided to the teen driver and post-trip feedback relayed to the teen's parents. The program is the equivalent of having a virtual adult in the car. The ultimate goal of the project is to reduce teen driver fatalities and injuries during the first months of driving, when crash and fatality rates are at their highest.

The results of all of our naturalistic studies verify one assertion: driver distraction and inattention are tangible public health threats. If you look away from the roadway for more than a second or two, your risk of getting in a crash grows substantially.

Our goal is to mitigate, and ultimately eliminate, distracted driving. In fact, a main objective of VTTI is to save lives. It is at the core of who we are and what we do, and we hope our studies continue to make a measurable impact on policies that enhance the safety of the transportation community.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health in an effort to call more attention to the dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is the cause of 350,000 crashes per year, and the series will be putting a spotlight on efforts being made to combat the crisis by the public and private sectors and the academic and nonprofit worlds. In addition to original reporting on the subject, we'll feature at least one post a day every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on the national effort, click here.

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