A new study has concluded that distractions impair driving performance – irrespective of the driver’s level of ability and experience.

The study – carried out by psychologists from Goldsmiths University of London – found that both cognitive tasks (i.e. counting backwards) and combined cognitive/physical tasks (i.e. texting) ‘tended to impair drivers’ performance, irrespective of their ability’.

The study was commissioned by East Riding of Yorkshire Council and Safer Roads Humber in a bid to discover what makes young drivers ‘so vulnerable’, and how they can be ‘advised and protected’.

The study used eye tracking technology to obtain an ‘accurate, real time representation’ of where drivers were looking in a range of driving scenarios.

The aim was to explore how drivers of varying experience and training differ in how they view the roads as they drive, and how distractions affect their behaviour.

In the months preceding the study, a call for volunteers was promoted via local media (local papers and radio), on social media and on TV.

This communications activity generated a strong response, with more than 300 people from the East Riding area volunteering to participate, more than 40 of whom took part in the full study.

Three groups of drivers were recruited: inexperienced (less than four years’ driving experience), experienced (20+ years of driving) and advanced (professional drivers or people with an advanced driving course certificate).

Participants were asked to drive a specific route in a dual controlled car while at the same time watching selected clips from the DVSA’s Hazard Perception Test. Specific mental distractions – such as counting backwards and texting – were used to simulate the effect of distractions while driving.

The study’s other key findings include:

  • Experienced drivers tend to look further ahead compared to novice drivers, anticipating bends and scanning further ahead on the road.
  • Drivers scan less when thinking about something complicated: performing a demanding task while driving resulted in a tendency for participants to have a ‘less distributed gaze pattern’, with less visual attention to peripheral areas.
  • Some of the inexperienced drivers tended to be overconfident: when asked to indicate how well they thought that they drove compared to their peers, novice drivers tended to score more positively than experienced/advanced drivers. They were also less likely to say that the distraction tasks affected their driving.

East Riding of Yorkshire Council and Safer Roads Humber will now use the video outputs from the study in educational and outreach behaviour change activities.

The project team has plans to use a similar methodology to explore cycling and powered two-wheeler user behaviour.

Click here to download a summary of the study results.

Courtesy of Road Safety GB