TORONTO -- Losing focus on the road during simple tasks is far too easy, according to preliminary results of a joint U.S.-Canadian study of driver eye movements.
Researchers are finding that drivers who tuned a car radio to a specific station took their eyes off the road 12 times in 15 seconds and spent more time looking at the instrument panel than through the windshield. More troubling, cell phone users tend to fix their gaze on the pavement just in front of the car for the duration of an entire call.
'They aren't even looking at the car in front of them,' said Christina Brown, an ergonomist in the road safety and motor vehicle regulation section of Transport Canada, which is conducting the research. The study is being carried out in collaboration with the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Brown said the Eye-Tracker study data will help government officials and automakers understand how drivers deal with visual distractions.
In the study, a driver wears a headband fitted with a tiny camera. The camera tracks the movement of the driver's pupils and marks the eyes' focus point on a video image of what can be seen through the windshield.
The study found that an undistracted driver concentrated on traffic far ahead, with occasional glances at rear-view mirrors, dashboard gauges and traffic signs.
But images of the radio-tuning task showed the driver not only was looking away from the windshield but was not focusing as keenly when he looked back to the road. Brown said that drivers' focus seems to drop below the horizon, taking in only objects close to the car, as they concentrate on in-car activities..
PHONERS' FOCUS CHANGES
'We found that when someone is driving without any distractions, they look above the horizon,' Brown said. 'When you give them a cell phone to use, the focus point goes down very close to the front of the car. They spend a lot of time just stuck there.'
Brown's is not the only research on driver vision and distraction these days. The subject is a key issue for vehicle component producers as more and more visual and audio distractions are built into high-tech vehicles.
At Nissan Motor Co., designers are questioning where they should position visual components, such as the displays for in-car navigation systems. Nissan is discovering that drivers are able to cope with screens that require downward glances of from 10 to 30 degrees but begin losing lane control when they need to look down more sharply than that..
Yasushi Kikuchi, a Nissan human factors engineer, said tests indicate that drivers normally see a range of critical objects at the center of an oval of vision. They can react to street signs, signals or pedestrians if they see them in the periphery of the oval. When drivers have to look down at a shallow angle to focus on an in-car system, they continue to react to critical objects on the road ahead of them.
But when the angle is sharper than 30 degrees downward, that vision oval no longer overlaps the crucial area of the road.
Using this information, Nissan has begun incorporating a pop-up screen in the center of the instrument panel cover for its navigation system.