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An emotional call for cars, cell phones

Why do some drivers crash while dialing a cell phone, and others steer smoothly while applying lipstick? Researchers look to see how much emotion has to do with it.

6 min read
Why do some drivers crash while dialing their cell phone, and others maneuver smoothly while applying lipstick, sending e-mail or fiddling with the radio in stop-and-go traffic?

General Motors and Wayne State University are partnering to find out how much emotion has to do with it. Researchers from GM and the Detroit university's medical school announced a multimillion-dollar deal Wednesday to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) with virtual reality driving simulations for the first time.

With a $100,000 cash grant from GM, as well as an undisclosed amount of software and hardware and an exchange of engineers between the automaker and the university, scientists will observe students and other volunteers to determine how much and which parts of the brain are used to drive.

They will then determine how the brain changes when volunteers are asked to perform other functions simultaneously--ranging from checking voice mail or using a handheld computer to having an emotionally draining conversation with a sick relative, distraught spouse or angry boss.

Researchers will focus specifically on how the level of emotion--compared with dexterity or visual coordination--affects drivers' ability to drive safely. That nuance marks a critical difference between the GM program and most other driver distraction research, which has largely focused on visual or auditory distractions but has steered clear of the more complicated and mysterious realm of emotional distraction.

"In my mind as a doctor, emotion is the most important thing in many respects that a person deals with when they're trying to multitask, including driving," said Dr. Christopher "Kit" Green, executive director of emerging issues at GM's Public Policy Center. "The technique of the brain-imaging scan allows us...to study the part of the brain that carries emotional information. Nobody knows what we will discover."

GM executives plan to publish the data and possibly use it to influence public policy--including the makeup of state driving exams, driver education programs and road signs. GM already works with the state of Michigan to suggest driver's license questions dealing with cell phones, road maps and other distractions.

New research could settle the increasingly vocal debate about whether telematics--the emerging field of dashboard Internet connectivity and telecommunications equipment--helps or hurts drivers to stay focused. Although many politicians and safety advocates disagree, most automakers say there is not enough data to determine whether dashboard gadgets are dangerous.

Telematics in the hot seat
At the same time automakers are eager to sell people cars equipped with expensive gadgets, they worry that companies endorsing telematics--automakers included--are assuming increasing liability for drivers who crash.

In 1995, a motorcyclist died after a Smith Barney broker in his Mercedes hit him while talking on his cell phone.

In my mind as a doctor, emotion is the most important thing in many respects that a person deals with when they're trying to multitask, including driving.
--Dr. Christopher "Kit" Green, executive director of emerging issues, GM's Public Policy Center
Although Smith Barney did not supply the phone, lawyers alleged that the firm encouraged workers to use personal phones for business. Smith Barney settled the case in 1999 for $500,000.

Although no definitive research exists on the correlation between wireless devices and crashes, safety advocates have some statistics to back up their claims. A link was reported as early as 1997 in the New England Journal of Medicine when two doctors determined that talking on a cell phone--even a hands-free one--while driving quadrupled the risk of being in an accident.

The pair surmised that keeping the driver's mind focused on the road is more important than keeping his or her hands on the wheel. They recently revisited their study and found they may have underestimated the risk. Now they're suggesting that cell phone bans for drivers might be justified.

New York has already banned using handheld cell phones while driving and at least 40 states are considering similar legislation.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 10.3 percent of all fatal crashes in 1999 were caused by driver distractions. The study showed a big increase in the number of electronics-related distractions as the number of Americans with handheld electronics devices mushroomed, but it didn't specifically ask people which of the emerging wireless devices, such as pagers or handheld computers, they used.

But many surveys suggest cell phones don't necessarily cause crashes--or, at least, they say it's impossible to determine whether it was the phone, the driver, the nature of a particular phone call or an external complicating factor such as a storm or stray animal in the road.

Automakers have chosen to spend millions of dollars on their own studies.

Last year, Ford Motor opened a $10 million driving simulator laboratory to study the dangers of dashboard computers, handheld devices, cellular phones and other electronic appliances. Ford's Virtual Test Track Experiment, or Virttex, was the first automotive lab to feature a full-scale, moving-base driving simulator that tracks drivers' eye movements while using onboard gadgets and trying to maneuver curves on simulated highways.

In April, GM launched a $1.6 million partnership with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to determine how well humans can interact with in-vehicle technologies such as satellite navigation systems, dashboard entertainment systems and laptop computers.

Results have yet to be published for either of the long-term studies.

Multitasking: How much is too much?
GM's newest research goes a step further than the others, studying brainwaves themselves to determine the extent of distraction, specifically whether humans simply cannot perform more than a certain number of functions safely while driving--or whether they can learn how to multitask effectively.

Volunteers will sport virtual reality goggles and grip a steering wheel while attempting to drive through simulations of Detroit-area roads, all while lying in the MRI tunnel in a hospital lab. Scientists will then ask them to perform a second function, ranging from a phone call to a conversation with a passenger, of "varying emotional load."

Scientists are specifically seeking volunteers who have recently endured a tragedy--the loss of a spouse or parent, or people who are in the midst of exams or other stressful events. They will ask the volunteers about these stresses during their driving simulation, then compare that to the person's ability to get through the simulation three or four months later.

"The imaging technique shows the actual portions of the brain while they are being used in processing sensory information during driving tasks. That information allows researchers to see if multiple sources of sensory information are being processed and, if so, how efficiently," said Gregory J. Moore of Wayne State University, who is co-directing the partnership.

Researchers also want to determine the effect of other factors, including sleep deprivation; the use of caffeine, alcohol and over-the-counter medications; and overall physical health of a driver. GM will look for volunteers of various ages, physical constitutions, educations and geographic regions.

To account for the differences between "real life" distractions and simulations in an MRI tube, GM is working on a unique MRI lab that would allow volunteers to take the exam in a vertical, seated position, Green said. Initially, volunteers will take the exam in the traditional MRI pose, lying down on their backs.

After researchers correlate emotion and driver distraction and figure out which parts of the brain are active during various tasks, they hope to determine whether drivers can learn to perform an increasing number of tasks while at the wheel. Based on previous research, Green believes certain people can learn to multitask by increasing their load in controlled experiments.

For example, a person may initially crash in driving simulations when trying to use a handheld computer while driving. But if that person masters the two tasks independently, the person may then be able to successfully do both at the same time.

Green doesn't advocate piling on tasks, and he believes in GM's position that all telematics equipment must be auditory to avoid any situation where the driver may have to take eyes off the road. He also recognizes that many people are abject failures at the simplest multitasking--no matter how much they practice.

But he has seen many people perform tasks well while driving and believes some people are more adept than others, in part because they've had years of practice. He wonders whether introducing issues related to driver distraction into driver education programs in high school or during state exams could make people better prepared for the realities of cell phones, pagers and always-on Internet connectivity.

"I believe for sure that anything that causes a person to take their eyes off the road, take their mind off the driving, and take their hands off the wheel is a distraction, and that is not good," Green said.

"That being said, I also am confident that we have evidence, though it's early, that multitasking can be learned if you give people the correct training. That's what we intend to do: take our results and improve driver performance by improving the driver training."