High Risk of accidents through smartphone use at the wheel

01 Jun 2017 The Human Factor
For many years now, the use of smartphones at the wheel has become an increasing risk to road safety. As a study conducted by the Allianz Zentrum für Technik (AZT) and published in November 2016 showed, one in ten fatal accidents in Germany is caused by drivers being distracted by their smartphones, navigation systems or other in-vehicle technology. In 2015, 3,277 fatal accidents were recorded in Germany, meaning that almost 330 of these victims will have died through being distracted at the wheel.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the figures are at a similarly high level in the USA, too, where almost 10% of traffic fatalities in 2015 were a result of driver distraction (in figures: 3,477 of a total of 35,092). A study published in early 2016 by a team of traffic researchers headed by Thomas Dingus from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) also gave cause for alarm. The team fitted more than 3,500 cars belonging to people aged 16 to 98 with cameras, sensors and radars that recorded not only the vehicle data but also driver behavior. Over a period of three years, the “test subjects” caused 905 accidents resulting in personal injury or material damage. 88% of these could be attributed to human error.
The fact that driver distraction can, from a purely mathematical point of view, have similarly grave consequences as “microsleeps” can be seen in the following example: When a car is traveling at 80 km/h and the driver is distracted for five seconds by, say, an incoming text message and is unable to respond to what’s happening on the road ahead, in that time the vehicle covers a distance of 111 meters without the driver being fully in control.
Given this problem, the installation in vehicles of driver assistance systems that can potentially mitigate the consequences of accidents caused by driver distraction – for example, lane keeping assist, distance control systems and emergency braking systems – should be promoted, a view also shared by DEKRA’s accident researchers. Road safety experts in Germany are also urgently calling for “distraction” to be included as a cause of accidents in Germany’s accident statistics, as has been the case for many years now in, among other countries, the USA, Austria and Switzerland.
Something else worth considering in this context is a recommendation proposed in fall 2016 by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), whereby smartphones should be equipped with a simplified user interface that is activated as soon as the device is connected to the vehicle. According to the NHTSA, this approach could involve extra-large buttons and fonts or reduced functionality – for example, the disabling of the Internet browser and social media apps while the vehicle is in motion. Nowadays, it is possible to buy in-vehicle systems that can be programmed so that certain cellphone functions are automatically disabled during driving. These systems have already been installed in, for example, numerous company fleets to stop employees from getting themselves into life-threatening situations while they are on the road.
That many countries in the world have long identified driver distraction as a problem can be seen in all the public awareness-raising campaigns that various institutions are always launching, featuring sometimes shocking photos and videos. The need for such campaigns – along with road safety education in schools, driving schools and companies – as a means of raising awareness of the road safety risks associated in particular with driver distraction seems to be more urgent than ever.