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In Dialogue with Dr Gemma Briggs about her talk at the OPRC Launch Event

Mobile Phone Use by Drivers: What We Know, and How to Share Such Inconvenient Truths

Sue: Hello Gemma, tell me, what’s this talk all about?

Gemma: The talk is about our research on hands-free mobile phone use by drivers, and how we communicate our findings to different audiences. Our research is focused on the cognitive distraction which is imposed by phone conversation, which leads to significant detriment to driving performance. This isn’t by any means a new research area, and there is a great deal of evidence to support the notion that distracted drivers demonstrate failures in visual perception, which has inevitable knock-on effects in their ability to react appropriately to events in the driving situation. We have carried out a series of investigations which are aimed at identifying specifically what the cognitive roots are to distraction, how the two tasks of driving and talking on the phone are processed and managed by drivers, and what that means for how dual tasking drivers apply their attention.

A key reason for carrying out research in this area is to improve road safety. As such, I have shared our research findings widely to various audiences, including government policy makers, fleet managers, the National Police Chief’s Council and, of course the general public. The talk provides examples of how our research has been shared and what kind of impact it has achieved.

Sue: How did you get interested in this topic?

Gemma: I first became interested in distracted driving when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Sussex. For my third-year project I was fortunate to be allocated to a great supervisor – Graham Hole – who carried out work in the area. I was lucky enough to then go on to complete a PhD and so have been researching phone use by drivers ever since. I still find it fascinating and continue to find new and interesting questions and angles to explore.

Sue: How do you research something like this, and specifically, how do you research it in relation to psychological science?

Gemma: We use a range of approaches to study the effects of phone use by drivers. Obviously, for ethical reasons, we can’t use real drivers in real cars, so we tend to use either simulator- or video-based studies. A standard protocol would involve us asking participants to complete a driving simulation task whilst looking out for hazards. Some of our participants will be distracted by a concurrent mobile phone conversation, and others will complete the tasks without distraction. We take measures of hazard detection and reaction times as well as tracking participant eye movements. These kinds of lab-based investigations give us experimental control, meaning we can measure specific aspects of both tasks and identify the key contributing factors to distraction. We can then tie these measurable effects to clear theoretical underpinnings, helping to identify both how and why human attention is fallible in this context.

Sue: Why are those results important?

Gemma: Our findings make an important contribution to the understanding of the effects of driver distraction. Rather than simply identifying that phone use is distracting and affects driving performance, it explains specifically why this is the case, using robust psychological theory.

Sharing these findings is also important, particularly as in the UK, 5 people die on the road everyday and 60 are seriously injured. Mobile phone use by drivers (handheld and handsfree) is very common and is a key contributory factor to incidents classified as both ‘driver error’ and ‘driver inattention’. I think a further key reason why our research is important is based on how we have shared the findings. We have created a range of interactive activities which allow individuals to experience distraction for themselves, demonstrating the effects which we see in the lab. This allows us to explain some quite complex research findings in a fun and non-judgemental way, whilst also delivering the message that dual tasking behind the wheel is a significant danger because of the cognitive distraction it imposes. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional driver, a very experienced driver, or a very confident driver, your brain still has limited attentional capacity.

Sue: What’s next in this line of research?

Gemma: We have series of new experiments lined up for when we can return to the lab. As vehicles gain new technology, including driver assistance safety systems, I’m interested to understand what this means for drivers using their phones in terms of their engagement. I’m also working closely with various organisations to share our research more widely, including UKROEd, who are responsible for all education courses which are offered to drivers in place of penalties/points, and the Institute of Traffic Accident Investigators.

Sue: Thank you so much for talking to me about this very interesting topic.

Please see below the original blog about Gemma’s talk and the link to the recorded talk.

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