Driving you to D i s t r a c t i o n Eye Tracking Driver Awareness

Driving is a natural skill for most of us. So natural, that we often do it subconsciously. Have you ever felt yourself go on auto pilot while you driving? Chances are that you are preoccupied with thoughts of work or home. Researchers call driving in this manner, with little or no attention to the traffic around, “driving without awareness.”

They also refer to something called “distracted driving”. With all the cool gadgetry that comes with vehicles today, we find ourselves compelled to multitask while driving. It is not uncommon to check navigation devices, answer a call or even text while driving. What kind of impact do these small actions take on driving? What can we learn from these common experiences that all drivers have?

Keep your eyes on the road!

Researchers at Attitudes, a corporate social responsibility program launched by Audi in Spain, studied 13 experienced drivers all working around the same area. They were observed during two tests, one of which was on a racetrack and the other which was the route they took to work daily. Researchers used eye tracking to study how drivers’ behavior while they navigated around familiar and unfamiliar roads. Participants wore a pair of Tobii Glasses—a mobile eye tracking system—to record their eye movements, so that researchers could determine which items in a participant’s field of vision attracted their attention.

The findings from this research were as follows

  • Experienced drivers are likely to drive subconsciously on familiar routes: Drivers who drive subconsciously are typically experienced drivers who drive a lot and use the car every day to get to work or school, usually always traveling along the same route.
  • People scan the road differently when they are driving subconsciously: In conscious driving, the driver’s gaze remained focused on a particular area of the road, while a subconscious driver used a wider viewing area with a more rapid eye movements.
  • Familiarity with the route plays a role in subconscious driving: When a driver is more relaxed, driving on a route that he/she is very familiar with, subconscious driving tends to occur.
  • Being lost in thought: Most drivers admitted to have slipped into driving subconsciously as their mind began to dwell on other things like their workday.

While driving subconsciously might seem dangerous, the study showed that drivers are able to snap back when they are faced with a dangerous situation. This means that, whilst not advised, driving subconsciously is at best a moderate risk; but can be lethal when combined with excessive speeds.

…Your hands upon the wheel!

If a driver is actually distracted while driving it’s a whole other scenario. Researchers have found that the seemingly simple act of answering calls, checking satellite navigation systems or texting while driving, can be lethal. <include eye tracking videos of distracted driving>

  • Distractions are not uncommon among drivers: Researchers working for Direct Line, an insurance company in London, found examples of motorists taking their eyes of the road to adjust sat-nav devices and in several cases, navigate using a hand-held smartphone.
  • Young and old both tend to ignore stimuli when distracted: Some 21 per cent of cyclists were unnoticed by those aged 50 or over, but 31 per cent among motorists aged between 20 and 29 years, which is a cause of concern considering younger people have better eyesight on the whole.
  • Eye movement stops when you are distracted: Researchers found that people answering calls have a narrow range of eye movement, when the eyes stop moving and a visual tunneling occurs.
  • Taking your eyes off the road and shutting them… it’s the same thing!: Texting and driving, researchers found is as good as being off the road or driving with your eyes shut.

The study concluded that distracted driving is bound to be lethal and that a seemingly small distraction can be prove to be disastrous to drivers.

Why use Tobii eye tracking?

While it may seem obvious that vision plays a big role in how people drive, the actual way people use their eyes when they are driving subconsciously or are distracted, tells a whole different story. Tobii Glasses, which is a mobile eye tracking system, records driver experiences as they happen. Actual driver behaviour is captured in real time and in real life. A simulator could never have the same effect as the real-life driving experience and a survey relying solely on the driver’s memory would not have the impact either. “The biggest advantage of using the Tobii Glasses was that we could use them in a real-life setting. Test subjects were able to perform common, everyday activities without being hindered by bulky eye glasses. Besides which, working closely with Tobii meant we were able to secure the best results possible during the project, find solutions to unforeseen situations, and work together as a team“, says Hildebrand Salvat.

How to professional drivers drive?

The following two videos are of a pro driving instructor, Steve Shaw, from Shawsett Training and Safety and an novice driver, me! We drove the same route around Perth and look at the results. All I did was I look at the road and in the mirrors like I was taught to. In comparison, steve scanned the environment constantly looking for things that might go wrong. He was defensive driving and I was just driving. And I think I am a good driver!!!! The roads are so well maintained in Australia that we can get away with unaware driving, but in Asia it is a very different story!! Be aware or get hurt!

There are three phases of acquiring a driving skill, the cognitive phase, an associative phase and an autonomous phase. Mourant & Rockwell (1972) studied the development of eye movements and the improvement of observation with driver experience. Mourant & Rockwell (1972) found that vision in driving is believed to constitute over 90% of information input to the driver. When you are just beginning to learn how to drive, emphasis is laid on adherence to Road Traffic Rules, and coordinative ability to manoeuvre along routes while observing rules. Whereas at the autonomous phase professional drivers’ driving skills are shaped and reinforced by near miss or actual crashes. Hence they are more likely to have and increased observation of high-risk situations which results in a greater level of vigilance. More experienced drivers that have greater observation skills, therefore also have lower crash rates.

Listen up!

While professional drivers are more equipped to handle difficult situations, for regular drivers like you and I, it is a totally different story. Our brains are not capable of concentrating on two things simultaneously. If you are texting, speaking on the phone or are even lost in thought, you increase the cognitive load on your brain and your driving immediately takes a hit. Consequently, a distracted driver is more likely to get into a crash that an alert one. The eye tracking research findings on ‘driving without awareness’ and ‘distracted driving’ resulted in the research being shared with government authorities so that education and awareness programs can be conducted among the young and old alike. The eye tracking data is convincing because it is evidence based and is hard to ignore. It is a reminder, albeit in an unsettling manner, that road safety can be jeopardised in a matter of seconds.

Gowri Penkar

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