March 12, 2003

Study shows teenagers more susceptible to in-car distractions than adults

Dearborn, Michigan – The results of a recent driver distraction study conducted by Ford’s Scientific Research Lab show that hands-free cellular phones are less distracting than hand-held cellular phones, and that teenagers are more susceptible to in-car distractions than adults due primarily to their driving inexperience.

Using Ford’s VIRtual Test Track EXperiment (VIRTTEX), the study found that cellular phones, operated either hands-free or hand-held, pose a distraction while driving. However, when operating a cellular phone with hands-free technology, the driver was noticeably less distracted. “Some research has suggested that hands-free technology doesn’t really reduce distraction,” said Jeff Greenberg, Staff Technical Specialist of Safety Research. “For short conversations where the driver is trying to work with simple information, we found that hands-free really does make a big improvement.”

The forty-eight adults and fifteen teenagers that participated in the study were asked to combine an everyday simulated driving experience with performing various tasks including phone dialing, voicemail retrieval, manual radio tuning and climate control adjustment.

While the participant was trying to complete a given task, they were asked to respond to sudden movements in surrounding traffic such as a swerving vehicle. Vehicle control was measured by lane violations and heading error. For the adult drivers, the most distracting tasks to perform were hand-held voicemail retrieval and hand-held phone dialing while hands-free voicemail retrieval did not significantly distract participants.

Results studying teenage drivers show that they are more susceptible to in-car distractions than adults. Due greatly to their driving inexperience, teenage participants were found to choose small following distances, leaving less room for error. They performed the same tasks as the adults with a greater occurrence of error; some to a drastic extent. The lane violation rate for the hand-held voicemail task was 56 percent higher for teens than adults. Similarly, teens missed 53.8 percent of the events occurring in front of them when dialing a hand-held phone.

With such overwhelming results, it appears that many teens give the dialing task equal or higher priority than scanning the driving scene. The results indicate a serious cause for concern according to Greenberg: “Cellular phones, pagers and other devices are popular among teens. The results of the study, at a minimum, indicate that driver education curricula should be revised to address the use of communication technology while driving.”

While driver’s education may become more advanced, Greenberg also believes vehicles will become more intelligent. “There’s never a good time to answer your cellular phone while driving. I see a future with vehicle systems intelligent enough to gauge traffic and manage your workload. Incoming calls could be sent directly to voicemail if the vehicle sensed high-stress surroundings. Deferring to voicemail might get around the distraction problem.”

Ford’s VIRTTEX is one of the most advanced laboratories of its kind in the world. Since 2000, Ford Motor Company has used the controlled laboratory setting to study everyday driving tasks and how they affect driver performance during a variety of simulated driving experiences. The lab sits atop six angled hydraulic pistons enclosed in a 24-foot dome capable of moving up to 10 feet to any side and tilt up to 20 degrees.

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