Friends don’t let friends drive Android

Another report on distracted driving came out recently. Most people saw typical press release fluff with a bar graph with no obvious scale showing how reaction time differed depending on what drivers were doing. Driving drunk was the best thing you could do short of driving sober. Using a touch screen infotainment system was the worst.

Luckily there was data to go with the graph because the story isn’t as simple as the picture that made the rounds. The graph makes for good press, telling drivers they should pick up a beer instead of a phone. But beware of using a single measure of driving ability.

The study, “Interacting with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay when driving” was released by a transportation research company in the UK. Test subjects were put in a driving simulator and asked to perform potentially distracting tasks. Sometimes a large red bar would appear in front of the car and they would have to touch the turn signal stalk to acknowledge. On one hand, they used a more conspicuous signal than a previous study I wrote about. On the other hand, the response is not a realistic reaction to an emergency. The brake pedal and the hand on the wheel have to react quickly. Rearranging hands to signal can wait.

The lesson I took out of the study was drivers using infotainment systems adapt to their slower reaction time. The control group (“hang up and drive”) reacted to the red bar in 1.5 seconds. The group talking to the computer reacted in 2.0 seconds. The group touching a screen reacted in 2.3 seconds.

That figure doesn’t tell the whole story. Drivers knew their reaction time was slower and adjusted their behavior. In normal driving they slowed by 2-5 mph while calling up music. When asked to follow another car, they increased following distance by 30%. That 100 foot increase in following distance allows an extra second to react to movements of the lead car. So if you’re worried about distracted drivers rear-ending you while looking for the perfect playlist, don’t.

Maybe more interesting, navigating, reading a text, and making a call did not slow reaction time. The authors speculate,

It is possible that participants became familiar to the appearance of
a red bar after the first occurrence and started anticipating it
during the remainder of the drive. It was also noteworthy that the
duration of interaction with the system in the first task (playing
music) was longer than for the following tasks, particularly reading
the text messages, and results may demonstrate that it was easier to
manage these tasks.

The figures I quoted were for people using the Android driver distraction system. Reaction times for Apple CarPlay users were 1.2, 1.7, and 1.8 seconds and there was less effect on driver behavior.

Talk about burying the lead. The study shows that being an Android user is worse than driving drunk.

Test subjects were assigned to the Apple and Android groups based on their usual phone. When driving with no distractions habitual Android users reacted 20% more slowly than habitual Apple users, almost twice as bad as the 12% effect caused by being legally drunk. Android users were also slower than Apple users when asked to play music.

If you believe that reaction time is the determiner of road safety, don’t get in the car with an Android user behind the wheel. Maybe we should ban them from driving just to be sure. Get rid of radar detector detectors and arm police with cell phone detectors instead.

Or we could go back to page 8 of the report and notice that Apple users in the study averaged 8 years younger than Android users. So a lot of the study is just saying Logan’s Run had it right.

Or we could teach the press and public not to reduce the world to a one-dimensional measurement. The researchers themselves knew better, but the trip from scientific report to press release tends to lose the science. A Far Side comic had one amoeba saying to the other: “Stimulus, response! Stimulus, response! Don’t you ever think?” We need to distinguish making good decisions slowly from not thinking clearly. Unfortunately, that is not one of the ingredients of a successful press release.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links. The author still uses a BlackBerry and has no stake in the Apple vs. Google fight.

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