The ‘Lorax’ of Driver Distraction
Jan/Feb 2012
Steve Tengler

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss

Imagine the Truffula trees described in Dr. Seuss’s famous children’s book The Lorax as the automotive companies: taking the abuse of the ever-consumptive, amorphous population in order to feed their bottomless hunger for a useful, colorful product. The only differences from fiction to reality are the products in question are technology interfaces (e.g. high-resolution touchscreens, smartphones), and the corporations have a limited tongue. Yes, they have communications departments and the engineers may tell some of the tale, but internal constraints limit how much may be said. “We want to focus our external messages into consumable ideas centered on our core product, and not head into discussions fraught with risk.”

But here I am: the Lorax, if you will. I have previously worked at two major automotive companies as a ‘human factors’ engineer and/or manager, and I am familiar with the story they don’t get to tell. So while I will dance around revealing any specifics about either company, processes, or internal communications/opinions, I will tell you how to truly engineer a product with driver distraction in mind, and I will do so without the entourage a large corporation typically brings.

If I have enticed you to read on, I beseech you to investigate three areas about this ever-escalating discussion:

  1. Engineering without Frog’s DNA
  2. The Distraction Regarding Distraction
  3. The Deaf-inition of Distraction
Engineering Without Frog’s DNA

For the enthusiasts of author Michael Crichton, you already know where I’m heading with this section. In the classic novel and associated movie, Jurassic Park, the scientists are unable to find all of the required DNA for the various dinosaurs they wish to resurrect after millions of years of extinction. So they devise a plan: insert frog’s DNA into the missing pieces of the puzzle and that should be good enough. Without ruining the story for all of you who lived in a bubble in the early ‘90s, I will simply say that trying to replicate a real world without truly understanding it was the undoing of the scientists and their cohorts.

So how does this relate to driver distraction, and the multiple sources predicting our deluge of consumer electronics may cripple society as we know it? The answer: Many of the studies that are quoted frequently have come to a conclusion based upon underlying assumptions that are not based in reality.

For example: Imagine ‘Joe Journalist’ has eight hours to create an article for an editor’s deadline, and he uses a search engine phrase of “driver distraction.”

Voilà! One of the first hits is a Website, funded by the American people,, which quotes: “Using a cellphone … while driving, whether it’s handheld or hands-free, delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08%.” But Joe doesn’t have time to understand the referenced study was conducted using a driving simulator or test track, and the contrived tasks, situations, requirements, etc., are not correlated to real-world conditions or driving. As noted in the 2005 study “The Effects of Secondary Tasks on Naturalistic Driving Performance” by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, controlled studies cannot allow for a driver’s choice or “risk perception” as happens thousands of times a day in real-world driving.

Therein, the ability to generalize some simulator findings outside the simulated environment is greatly limited. Hence the frog’s DNA is the driving simulator; a powerful tool for directional engineering since it affords quicker evaluations at lower costs, but not a tool that automatically allows extrapolation to a different situation with a different population and set of consequences.

So, if the simulator studies are questionable, how can automotive companies understand real-world safety of products? Yes, they spend millions building, maintaining, and staffing driving simulators, but they also employ multiple universities to run eye-glance studies to confirm designs meet the guidelines set forth by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, and they conceive and iterate quick prototypes within a modeling environment that permit eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

And if you don’t believe this whole section, I provide for you the litmus test: With the explosion of cellular handsets, texting, and other data services throughout the past decade, how significant has the increase in deaths per hundred million miles driven been? Has the increase in deaths been four times the sales of cellular phones as predicted by the simulator’s frog DNA?

The answer: no. In fact, per the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.) report, deaths on the highway have steadily declined and, in 2009, dropped to levels as low as 1954. Any layman—let alone scientist—should understand that a sustained, real-world trend in the opposite direction means the catalyst is likely not a catalyst and poor assumptions have been made during the study of the ergonomics.

The Distraction Regarding Distraction

Ok, so if we spent the time to sift through the best in the science, what are the greatest distractions for the driver? Few would argue with the results of a naturalistic study (using cameras inside vehicles for an extended period of time) conducted by VTTI (Virginia Tech Transportation Institute) and the subsequent conclusion that texting “… should be banned in moving vehicles for all drivers …” since the risk of getting in a crash or a near-crash is 23.2 times higher than nondistracted driving. And, in fact, at the time of publication the majority of states have enacted laws prohibiting such behavior. But how about the next few distractions? What are they? What have we done as a society to either outlaw them or ergonomically design away the distraction? The aforementioned VTTI output shows the next five actions as being the most distracting:

• Reading (3.4 times worse than undistracted driving)

• Applying make-up (3.1 times worse)

• Dialing a handheld device (2.8 times worse)

• Handling a CD (2.3 times worse)

• Eating (1.6 times worse)

In fact, the 2001 study by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center called “The Role of Driver Distraction in Traffic Crashes” studied the NASS (National Accident Sampling System) CDS (Crashworthiness Data System) data for the prevalence of reported “distractions” as reported by real-world drivers in accidents and also discovered some of these root causes among the 8.1% of accidents that reported distraction. For instance, “adjusting radio, cassette, CD” constituted 11.4% of those accidents; “other device/object brought into the vehicle” was 2.9% of those accidents; and eating or drinking was 1.7%.

So, if we as the ergonomists wish to take distraction engineering to the next level, where might we be able to employ the same rigor as the aforementioned automotive companies and find creative solutions to help the drivers of tomorrow? How about more driver-friendly fast-food packaging? With coffee causing more vehicular insurance claims than any other food or drink, according to, maybe designing and/or mandating blow-molded cups with spill-proof tops instead of the insecure, inexpensive snap-ons would be a good start.

Minimally, we should be screaming from the mountaintops about outlawing the fast-food drive-thru—an estimated 50% of revenue from a $179 billion

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