What drivers are really doing behind the wheel

Cameras captured motorists texting and driving. Picture: One Task
Cameras captured motorists texting and driving. Picture: One Task

Australian drivers are distracted for 45 per cent of the time behind the wheel, finds the first results from a landmark research project that filmed hundreds of drivers inside their vehicles over nearly two million kilometres.

Designed to find out what drivers really do behind the wheel, the first results shocked researchers who specialise in driver distraction, the cause of about 16 per cent of serious crashes.

Every 96 seconds a driver was distracted by something other than the road ahead. "That's a big figure," said safety researcher Dr Kristie Young, a senior fellow with Monash University's Accident Research Centre and lead researcher on the study on distraction.

Six per cent of these non-driving tasks captured on video resulted in near misses. Drivers braked sharply, swerved into the next lane, forgot to indicate, or failed to yield to a pedestrian. Most of these incidents were caused by preoccupied motorists who had been texting and talking on a phone, engaging in personal hygiene or reaching for an object.

Texting while driving can increase the risk of a crash by six times. Picture: One Task

Texting while driving can increase the risk of a crash by six times. Picture: One Task

Drivers were also caught on camera texting and holding their phones low in their laps to avoid detection by police.

About 36 per cent of distractions – called secondary tasks by the researchers – were relatively quick and took five seconds or less.

These included adjusting seatbelts or pressing buttons on the centre stack. Personal hygiene accounted for 7 per cent of tasks, taking more than a minute each time. Drivers also talked to passengers and pets.

This was in stark contrast to the 5 per cent of drivers who did nothing other than concentrate on the road ahead, said Dr Young.

Reaching down for an object, including mobile phones, accounted for nearly 8 per cent of distractions, something shown to increase crash risk by nine times.

Texting on hand-held phones – shown to increase crash risk by six times – accounted for about 3.5 per cent of tasks but was more distracting, taking 94 seconds each time.

Presenting the results to the Australasian Road Safety Conference in Sydney last week, Dr Young said drivers self-regulated, by tending to text and talk on handheld phones more when traffic had stopped, but many remained distracted when traffic started moving.

Some drivers multi-tasked, doing three or more things at the same time. The worst case caught on video was a female driver who got out a hard copy diary, and wrote in it while holding it in her lap at red lights. "When the lights went green, she kept writing while she was moving," Dr Young said. The driver also engaged in other activities, including holding and using her mobile phone. "She was doing something for the entire trip," she said.

In NSW, drivers who use a mobile phone illegally are penalised five demerit points, increased from four points last month. Transport NSW estimates the crash risks doubles when a motorist takes his or her eyes off the road for longer than two seconds.

The results come from the first study using a random sample of data from the $5 million Australian Naturalistic Driving Study (ANDS), which placed four cameras and sensors in the cockpit of 346 cars owned by 379 NSW and Victorian drivers. Chosen to represent country and city, and men and women of all ages and driving experience, they were recorded driving 194,961 trips totalling more than 1.95 million kilometres.

Researchers say naturalistic research is more accurate than studies relying on simulated situations in laboratories or self-reported accounts where drivers may say one thing, and do another.

Emeritus Professor Raphael Grzebieta from Transport and Road Safety (TARS) at UNSW, and the project's lead chief investigator, said tasks that took a motorists eyes off the road could be dangerous.

"Anything longer than a quarter to a half a second where you are travelling at speed, and you take your eyes off the road, you don't know what's going on. You think you do, but then suddenly something jumps out and that's when something happens," he said.

Participants were not identified in any way, except for Professor Ann Williamson, the director of TARS and a co-author of the study, who volunteered to be a guinea pig.

A cautious driver from her many years as a road safety expert, Professor Williamson found the experience shocking. "It is a bit of an eye-opener to realise how much risk there is in driving that you as a driver may not be aware of."

When she reviewed the videos of her driving, she was surprised by pedestrians she could see.

"The interaction with pedestrians was phenomenal, where I passed or stopped near them." She also realised that her vehicle's design blocked her view of some pedestrians.

Professor Williamson said the study would tell researchers "what normal driving looked like", and document how often distractions occurred and when they went wrong.

Very often drivers could do more than one thing while they were driving, she said, without repercussions. But this study would show researchers what combination of factors and distractions resulted in injuries and fatalities.

Understanding which risky behaviours were happening could improve safety strategies. For example, said Professor Williamson, if traffic-light cycles were too long, drivers may be more inclined to look at their phones.

Professors Grzebieta and Williamson are also concerned that many new cars' complex dashboards are adding to driver distraction. Professor Williamson said she could no longer change radio stations with a quick press of a button.

ANDS is a major project by MUARC, Transport and Road Safety Research at UNSW, the University of Adelaide's Centre for Automotive Safety Research and Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety Queensland, with backing from major insurers and Transport for NSW.

It is expected to result in years of research including reviewing differences in driving by age, gender, location, speed and type of road.

According to ANDS, the system will silently record a participant’s driving behaviour (e.g. where they are looking), the behaviour of their vehicle (e.g. speed, lane position) and the behaviour of other road users with whom they interact (e.g. other drivers, motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians) in normal and safety-critical situations. Each data collection system will incorporate multiple sensors (video cameras, a still camera, GPS, radar, accelerometers) to provide a complete picture of driver, vehicle and road user behaviour in all driving situations.

But studying the video was extremely time-consuming until researchers worked out how to automate the process. "We had a massive amount of data," she said, adding that it took nearly 750 hours for researchers to analyse the first results.

The results are similar to a naturalistic study of American drivers. It found drivers engage in some type of distracting activity more than 50 per cent of the time they are driving.