School positioning itself as a national expert on road safety
Just how unsafe is cellphone use while driving? LSU aims to come up with an answer.
For the past year and a half, LSU researchers have been inviting people to the College of Engineering to test their driving skills.
Inside the building, volunteers strap themselves into the university’s virtual driving simulator. It looks like a Ford Focus minus the wheels. It’s equipped with a series of cameras, projectors and screens designed to simulate realistic driving conditions.
It’s part of LSU’s plan to become one of the go-to universities in the country to study issues that affect driving safety, from road conditions to texting to the impact of medication on a driver.
Within the next month LSU should come out with the results of its study of “Distracted Driving and Associated Crash Risks.” So far, researchers have found that a large gap exists between driver safety while talking on a cellphone versus driver safety while texting.
The study should be a timely addition to the available data that exists as states and municipalities consider different laws to make roadways safer.
John LeBlanc, executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission, said the epidemic of distracted driving is growing as technology expands. The problem is concentrated mostly among young people, he said.
At any given time, research shows that more than 660,000 people are using their cellphone or another electronic device while driving, LeBlanc said.
One problem is that Louisiana and other states don’t yet differentiate certain types of distracted driving on crash reports — namely talking on a cellphone while driving versus texting while driving.
According to preliminary results from LSU’s study, it’s an important distinction.
Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Sherif Ishak explains that volunteer drivers drove a series of simulation runs where they were instructed to do certain tasks such as follow a car in front of them.
At the same time, the drivers would receive phone calls where they were expected to hold their end of a conversation while completing the task on the simulator. Other times, drivers were instructed to send and respond to texts while driving the simulator.
They were judged on how well they maintained an acceptable speed, whether they had abrupt moments of acceleration and braking, which would signal distracted driving, and whether they could stay in the proper lane without drifting from side to side.
“We found that the cell phone conversations didn’t reveal any significant difference in driving behavior,” Ishak said. “Our subjects were able to really manage.”
Texting while driving, however, showed that subjects had significant trouble driving safely while texting, especially when it came to staying in the proper lane, Ishak said.
“They were veering out of their lanes a lot, moving right to left,” he said. “We also found that the distraction lasted 3.35 seconds beyond when the texting stopped. One possible explanation is that it takes that long to change the focus from concentrating on the phone to concentrating on the road.”
That 3.35 seconds of distraction equates to a car traveling a distance of 200 feet while cruising at 40 miles-per-hour, Ishak said.
Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Louisiana Legislature have tried to clamp down on distracted driving in recent years, passing a law in 2010 that made it a primary offense for drivers to be texting or emailing while driving. Previously, a driver could be cited only if stopped for another traffic violation.
This year, lawmakers passed a law banning drivers from tweeting, posting on Instagram or using any other social networks while operating a moving vehicle.
Repeated efforts to ban handheld cell phone use while driving have failed.
Louisiana State Police Capt. Doug Cain says texting and other distracted driving continues to be a significant safety hazard throughout the state. Crash and fatality records don’t necessarily reflect the seriousness of the problem because troopers often cite drivers for behavior that resulted from the texting, such as improper lane usage, careless operation or reckless operation.
“The enforcement is getting done,” Cain said. “It’s not necessarily indicated in the texting while driving,” on the crash reports.
However, in cases that result in serious injuries or deaths where cell phone use is suspected, troopers subpoena phone records to determine whether the cell phone was in use at the time of the crash, he said.
“All it takes is a few seconds of distracted driving for something bad to happen,” Cain said. “If you’re driving through a neighborhood and a ball rolls in front of your car, if you’re distracted, it just takes a few seconds to hit that child chasing that ball.”