A New Study Could Help Make Driving Vastly Safer

Researchers are studying how motorists interact with their cars in the moments before a crash.
by | September 23, 2013
A man uses his cell phone while driving in Newark, N.J.
Previous studies on cellphone use while driving has relied on observations, surveys and phone records -- all of which are inaccurate or ineffective, according to the study's researchers. This study may actually reveal a safe way to use a cellphone in a car. AP/Mike Derer

Drivers cause or contribute to more than 90 percent of collisions, according to transportation safety experts. But what we don't know, exactly, is what happens in the moments leading up to a crash. Questions like what drivers do just before a collision, and how they react to cues from their vehicle and the surrounding environment, are largely a mystery.

While accident investigators might look at things like skid marks and debris patterns to figure out how cars collided, the problem, says traffic safety expert James Hedlund, is "that's all after the fact. You don't really know what that person was doing. Was he picking his nose? Was he talking on his cellphone?"

A new study could help answer questions like that, revolutionizing our understanding of how motorists interact with their vehicles and the road. It could make driving vastly safer. And it couldn't come at a better time: Last year, the number of auto fatalities crept back up again -- by more than 5 percent -- after having declined for seven straight years by more than 25 percent to 32,367.

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Researchers have equipped more than 3,100 cars nationwide with a slew of sensors and tools designed to capture a bounty of data about driving and behavior. In exchange for $500, volunteers' cars were outfitted with accelerometers, GPS, radar and other devices that track drivers' use of brakes, horns, turn signals and lights. Alcohol sensors determine whether there's booze in the vehicle. Cameras capture volunteers' faces as they drive, as well as their front and rear views and their interactions with the dashboard. The data will capture everything happening inside a car prior to a collision and help explain how and why people get into accidents -- and just as important, how they can be avoided.

Researchers worked to recruit a mix of volunteers whose genders and ages proportionately reflected the population of U.S. drivers. Though drivers are aware they're being studied, they only briefly become more conservative behind the wheel and return to old habits within days. "People have completely forgotten this thing's in their car," says Hedlund, a former deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a consultant on the study. "They do the craziest things."


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