Technology often causes driver distraction. Perhaps it can help prevent it, too.
A study released this month found distraction could be reduced as much as 47 percent if drivers get real-time alerts that help refocus their attention on the road.
Nauto, an artificial-intelligence company in Palo Alto, Calif., found nearly four of five drivers in fleets across multiple industries improved driving performance with real-time alerts produced by in-cabin monitoring systems. These drivers reduced their frequency of distraction by 40 percent, duration of distraction by 43 percent and distance traveled while distracted by 47 percent.
Taken with other studies, the findings are part of a growing body of work that suggests substantial improvements in traffic safety can be made with technology available today, and that the industry does not need to wait for self-driving vehicles to hit the road en masse before deaths and injuries are reduced.
"I'm excited about the possibility of autonomous vehicles, but as we're all experiencing, we've got a while to wait," said Jennifer Haroon, COO at Nauto. "One of our goals is to use AI to enhance human drivers and change human behavior, and actually have an impact today."
Nauto's aftermarket devices have been used in commercial fleets since 2017, and its real-time safety alerts and fleet metrics are intended to help commercial operators minimize losses. The company says it has detected 21 million distracted-driving events across approximately 250 million miles traveled in vehicles containing its products.
A device roughly the size of an iPhone that's installed on the windshield contains forward-looking and cabin-facing cameras whose software identifies road hazards and driver distractions.
For the study, Nauto analyzed drivers across multiple industries and found passenger fleets had the most distracted drivers, averaging more than five distractions per hour before in-cabin alerts were enabled. On average, the worst 10 percent of drivers triggered an average of 25.3 distractions per hour, and drove distracted for 85.6 seconds per hour.
While a company touting the benefits of its product shouldn't necessarily be a surprise, Nauto's dataset is unlike others and offers a glimpse at the safety potential of real-time alerts.
"This is fairly unique," Haroon said. "You have to have the algorithms to detect distractions, and you have to run them at the edge."
A research note published in April by NHTSA, the nation's top auto safety regulator, found that 9 percent of fatal crashes involved distractions of all kinds, and that 434 people died in fatal crashes specifically involving smartphone-related distractions in 2017, roughly 1.1 percent of all traffic deaths.
Private companies such as Nauto and safety organizations believe the federal safety agency has underestimated the scope of the distracted-driving problem.
A study by Zendrive, whose software tracks and analyzes driver behavior, classified 8 percent of drivers as "phone addicts," who spend 28 percent of their time behind the wheel staring at their smart devices.
"Whatever the statistics, we know they're going in the wrong direction," Haroon said. "There's a lot of speculation that distracted driving is one of the reasons for that, and that's something we can address. That's what makes this exciting."
-- Pete Bigelow