Distracted driving is the focus for University of Washington researcher
Professor Linda Ng Boyle of the University of Washington College of Engineering is at the forefront of research on distracted driving.
Boyle has studied the issue since working at Volpe, The National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass., in the late 1990s.
“I have always been aware of how distracted I can be while driving, and the distractions do not necessarily come from mobile devices, but from various other sources inside and outside the vehicle,” she says.
Traffic-safety experts place driver distractions in three categories: manual, visual and cognitive. But texting is the most serious distraction because it affects drivers in all three ways.
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At the UW, Boyle’s research focuses on driving behavior, crash and safety analysis, crash countermeasures and statistical modeling. Boyle has used a driving simulator to evaluate how drivers deal with distractions. Much of her research has focused on teen drivers.
“I do think it’s a big problem,” Boyle says of distracted driving.
“And it’s a big problem that’s really difficult to quantify. When I give a presentation, I always ask two questions. First, ‘Do you text when you drive?’ A few raise their hands. Then, ‘How many of you have seen other people text while driving?’ And everybody raises their hands.
“So the point of these two questions is that we all think we don’t do it, but we see everybody else do it. We see it as a big problem, but we feel we’re better than that. And I’m not so sure we are.”
In a YouTube video titled “Driven to Distraction,” Boyle talks about the issue of distracted driving around the world, which results in more than 3,000 fatalities a day. “This is a huge global health problem,” she says.
So what are the solutions?
Boyle’s approach is to combine driver education with the development of innovative policies and the advancement of automotive technology and highway design.
The education component in this traffic safety issue includes talking to high school students and the general public about the hazards of distracted driving.
In 2007, Boyle did a report titled “The Effect of Distractions on the Crash Types of Teenage Drivers,” with David M. Neyens, a former student of hers who is now an engineering professor at Clemson University.
According the 2007 paper, “Driver distraction is becoming a greater concern among this group as in-vehicle devices, opportunities for distraction and teenage drivers’ willingness to engage in these activities increases.”
Boyle and Neyens are now preparing a new report with updated statistics on a growing problem.
In 2013, according to the anti-texting campaign “Stop the Texts. Stop the Wrecks,” 10 percent of drivers 15–19 years old involved in fatal crashes were reported to be distracted at the time of the crashes.
Boyle’s helps create traffic-safety policies with the National Traffic Safety Administration, Federal Highway Administration and state and local transportation agencies. She is also an associate editor of the journal of “Accident Analysis & Prevention.”
“Basically, we’re trying to design laws or policies or rules that people can actually adhere to,” Boyle says.
Boyle also works with automobile manufacturers and highway designers to create safer, smarter cars and roads.
“I really don’t think we’re going to be in the driverless mode for at least a few more decades,” she says. “So for the time being, while drivers are still in the loop, we’re trying to think about how people can still move or flow together.
“The goal for us as researchers is to understand, number one, what’s going on; and two, to learn how we can actually design vehicles and infrastructure so that everyone — not just the driver, but the occupants, pedestrians and bicyclists — can work together to keep us all safe.”