Experienced and novice drivers – whether they like it or not – have to share the road. Turns out, they share more than that.

According to researchers at West Virginia University, vehicle operators with more experience are distracted just as often as novice drivers, although they do a better job of surveying their surroundings.

Professors Leonel Medellin and David Martinelli, from WVU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, studied data from three groups of drivers whose eye movements were tracked by a camera to determine the frequency of distraction and road scanning. They’re making that research available to the state and federal government.

“Driver distraction is high on the national agenda in terms of accident prevention,” Martinelli said. “There are new sources of in-vehicle and out-of- vehicle distractions that compete for a driver’s attention and cause accidents.”

Medellin said that talking and text messaging on mobile phones is the most commonly associated distraction, but Global Positioning Systems, portable DVDs and stereo systems have made vehicles, “like a living room on wheels.” Also, LED billboards, which often display bright, eye-catching messages are becoming more commonplace.

Medellin said that similar research has been done using driving simulators but each of WVU’s 90 subjects drove similar 2-mile routes in Morgantown during a period of light traffic and with another person in the front seat making casual conversation. Drivers were divided into three groups – one group was learning to drive, one had been licensed for a year or less and one had been licensed for at least five years.

FaceLab (http://www.seeingmachines.com/product/facelab/) cameras recorded the subjects’ eye movements every 1/60th of a second and software plotted the data within a simulated field of vision. Eye movements not recorded in the field for 2 � seconds or more were considered distractions.

“We wanted to test drivers using real world conditions,” Medellin said. “Two-and-a-half seconds is the average perception-reaction time ? more than that and they’ve missed something. They are occupied with a secondary task.”

Learning and less experienced drivers experienced a similar number of distractions as their more-experienced counterparts, but Medellin said less experienced drivers tended to focus their attention directly in front of them while more experienced drivers shifted their gaze more frequently.

“Less experienced drivers may take longer to interpret something but, with all the distractions they typically encounter behind the wheel, it’s safe to assume that they are developing bad habits and may not evolve into a better driver who frequently checks his mirrors and pans the roadway,” Martinelli said.

The engineers collected the data and created a report that they shared with the Federal Department of Transportation and the West Virginia Department of Transportation.

“There’s a lot of discussion going on at the national and state level, trying to determine the next generation or level of policy,” Martinelli said. “Hand-held devices, in-vehicle electronics and also outside distractions pose challenges to policy-makers interested in reducing motor vehicle accidents. Policies will set limits on what sort and what level of distractions are acceptable and what is detrimental to drivers.”


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