Politics and Research: Driver Distraction

A hot item in the news is that research on multi-tasking while driving was suppressed back in 2002 because the NTSA was afraid of “antagonizing” Congress. An excerpt from the NYT article:

But such an ambitious study never happened. And the researchers’ agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, decided not to make public hundreds of pages of research and warnings about the use of phones by drivers — in part, officials say, because of concerns about angering Congress.

Not all the research went unpublished. The safety agency put on its Web site an annotated bibliography of more than 150 scientific articles that showed how a cellphone conversation while driving taxes the brain’s processing power. But the bibliography included only a list of the articles, not the one-page summaries of each one written by the researchers.

Chris Monk, who researched the bibliography for 18 months, said the exclusion of the summaries took the teeth out of the findings.

“It became almost laughable,” Mr. Monk said. “What they wound up finally publishing was a stripped-out summary.”

Reviewers of this literature take note: The summaries are quite good and can be found in the original NTSA report from pages 13 to 99.

Many news sources covered this topic:

The articles seem to imply that there was knowledge available to the NTSA but not to anyone else, certainly not congress. Mention of outside research was brief in the news articles. For example, one excerpt summarized:

The research mirrors other studies about the dangers of multitasking behind the wheel. Research shows that motorists talking on a phone are four times as likely to crash as other drivers, and are as likely to cause an accident as someone with a .08 blood alcohol content.

The links go to the start of powerpoint presentations included in the NTSA document rather than to actual research. There is nothing wrong with the powerpoints, though it would be nice if the HF researchers and professionals who have worked on this problem got direct credit for the knowledge they provided to the world.

I’m not sure why the work done by the NTSA would be the only work taken seriously by congress, but perhaps I’m not understanding correctly. HF researchers have known for years that a hands-free headset was not an inoculation against poor driving performance and that many in-car activities consume attentional resources.  David Strayer, (whose articles I use in my Intro to Human Factors class,)  has worked for years on the problem of driver distraction. His work alone, often with Frank Drews, provides 8 published articles on driver distraction between 2001 and 2003 when the NTSA report was written.  This is, of course, in addition to work occurring since the inception of the cell phone (these are just a few I cribbed from Strayer and Johnson’s references in their 2001 article):

  • Alm, H. & Nilsson, L. (1995). The effects of a mobile telephone task on driver behaviour in a car following situation. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 27, 707-715.
  • Briem, V. & Hedman, L.R. (1995). Behavioural effects of mobile telephone use during simulated driving. Ergonomics, 38, 2536-2562.
  • Redelmeier, D.A., & Tibshirani, J.J. (1997). Association between cellular-telephone calls and motor vehicle collisions. The New England Journal of Medicine, 336, 453-458.

My favorite comes from 1969(!):

  • Brown, I.D., Tickner, A.H., & Simmonds, D.C.V. (1969). Interference between concurrent tasks of driving and telephoning. Journal of Applied Psychology, 35, 419-424.

Consumer Reports weighed in on this today as well.