Driver distraction in an unusual environment: effects of text-messaging in tunnels

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Christina M Rudin-Brown
Kristie L Young
Michael G Lenné
Ruggero Ceci

The use of mobile phones and other portable devices while driving can be distracting and significantly increases the risk of being involved in a collision. Compared to highway driving, driving in a tunnel environment introduces additional factors such as monotony, boredom and fatigue, as well as limitations in road width, which may interact with drivers’ attentional resources to exacerbate the effects of distraction on driving performance and hazard perception ability. Planning and design of the 17 km Swedish Förbifart Stockholm (FFS) tunnel is currently underway. Expected to be completed by the year 2020, safety measures are a high priority for the FFS because of the potentially devastating consequences of collisions in longer tunnels compared to those that occur in open environments.

The primary aim of the present simulator study is to assess the effect of road environment (tunnel vs. highway) on measures of driver distraction. Twenty-four participants aged 22 to 50 years will drive the MUARC advanced driving simulator while reading and sending text messages using their own mobile phones. Presentation of 7 km highway and tunnel road segments will be counterbalanced across participants. Dependent measures of driving performance will include vehicle speed, speed variability, lane position, lane position variability, and steering wheel reversal rate. The FaceLab™ eye tracking system will measure eye glance location and duration as surrogate, objective measures of driver distraction. Objective (responses to text-messaging tasks) and subjective (NASA-TLX) measures of driver workload will also be compared across environments.

Results are expected to reveal differences in driving performance, eye glance behaviour, and workload measures between tunnel and highway road environments when drivers are distracted. Specifically, it is hypothesised that, compared to driving on a highway while text-messaging, tunnel driving while text-messaging will result in: slower speeds, a more central position in the lane with less lane deviation, more glances of shorter duration to the mobile phone, and increased subjective workload. Study outcomes will have implications in terms of government policy on the use of portable devices in tunnels, and will allow recommendations to be made regarding the practice of using mobile phones to communicate safety messages to drivers in tunnels.

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