Psychology Student Uses Fellowship to Look at Driver Distraction

Posted: August 21, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

David Kidd in Mason's driving simulator
Student David Kidd with Mason’s driving simulator.
Photo courtesy of David Kidd

You might find yourself angry at a bad driver on the road when you see they are on a cell phone, but how well do you think you drive while carrying on a conversation?

With the amount of text messages, cell phone conversations, music players and other devices finding their way into cars these days, it’s important to look at how these distractions affect driving performance.

David Kidd, a psychology PhD student in human factors and applied cognition, spent his summer researching just this issue. As a winner of one of the Liberty Mutual Safety Research Fellowships offered by the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) Foundation, Kidd spent six weeks at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety in Hopkinton, Mass., collecting data on a test track using a real vehicle.

Kidd’s experiment tested how people’s estimated driving ability when distracted compared to their actual distracted driving performance. He wanted to find out if people’s perceptions of how well they drove when distracted were significantly different from their actual distracted driving performance and if drivers’ perceptions became more accurate over time.

“The most exciting part about my experience this summer was that I was able to work with prominent researchers in my field on a research question that I proposed,” says Kidd.

“With their guidance, the researchers allowed me to lead the project and take it in the direction that I wanted to go. It was thrilling to work with people that share similar research interests and who are excited about scientific inquiry.”

His study required participants to perform three tasks while driving a specially equipped Ford Windstar van. The drivers had to stay in the middle of the lane, pace their speed to pass by designated clocks at a certain time and react quickly to a changing intersection light.

Ford van on track
The Ford van on the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety test track.
Photo courtesy of David Kidd

On some occasions drivers also completed simple math problems while performing the driving tasks. The math problems were presented through tiny speakers behind the driver’s head. Drivers had to solve the math problems and speak an answer out loud while concentrating on the road. The math problems were used to simulate the cognitive demands of a hands-free cell phone conversation.

“It is quite a challenge to run a complete study in such a short time frame,” says William Horrey, research scientist at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety who supervised Kidd’s study. “However, David was able to complete all of his goals in this time span — an impressive feat given the amount of data collected — 52 sessions over the course of 18 days.”

The results were different from what was expected — the data Kidd collected suggested that people thought they drove worse than they actually did. Additionally, drivers did not think their distracted driving performance improved over time.

This finding was contrary to what Kidd hypothesized and what other studies have shown. He’s hoping to conduct further research investigating drivers’ perceptions of their driving ability using different types of distractions and exploring methods of improving the accuracy of drivers’ estimated driving ability.

As part of the fellowship requirement, Kidd will write and publish his results later this year in the AASE magazine Professional Safety.

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