Paying attention to driver distraction

Dr Nicole Thomas is studying how sights, sounds and emotional stimuli influence our attention - including on the road.
Dr Nicole Thomas is studying how sights, sounds and emotional stimuli influence our attention – including on the road.

Picture this: you’re driving in peak-hour traffic, the radio’s blaring, the kids are screaming and your phone’s ringing.

Suddenly the primary task of driving isn’t your primary focus anymore.

With driver distraction accounting for 78 per cent of car crashes and 65 per cent of near misses on Australian roads each year, Flinders University researcher Dr Nicole Thomas is on a mission to find out how sights, sounds and emotional stimuli influence our attention, and what factors are most distracting.

Funded by a new $352,000 grant from the Australian Research Council, the three-year study will use cutting-edge eye tracking technology to illustrate how eye movements can help explain particular behaviours, such as driver distractibility and attention deficit disorders.

“The research aims to build a better understanding of how we direct our attention and the types of things that pull our attention away and create unsafe situations,” Dr Thomas, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Flinders Brain and Cognition Laboratory, said.

“In a driving situation, it’s not uncommon to have a sensory overload of information coming at you from all different angles so by tracking eye movements, we’ll be able to see what information is most distracting from the primary task of driving,” she said.

As part of the project, Dr Thomas will investigate the influence of sound on eye movements, and therefore attention.

Participants could be asked to look at a beach scene, for example, and once the researchers know what object their eyes are fixed on they will add noise cues to determine how auditory information can distract visual input.

“One of the things we know from driving research is that hands-free devices are equally as dangerous as mobile phones,” Dr Thomas said.

“Initially the assumption was that mobile phone use is more dangerous because you’re physically holding the phone but we know there’s something that makes hands-free just as dangerous, we just don’t know what that is yet.”

Along with various eye tracking tests, body temperature will also be monitored to compare the impact of emotional versus neutral stimuli on attention and distractibility.

“Temperature is an indication of arousal, so we’ll be looking at how the body responds to information that’s emotional in nature to see if it’s more distracting than a neutral stimulus.

“For example, if a driver sees a car accident will they be more distracted than driving past a billboard sign, which is still a visual stimulus but emotionally neutral?”

Dr Thomas, based in the School of Psychology, said the findings will have real-world implications for the health and manufacturing sectors.

“The information could be used to help people who suffer spatial neglect, which causes people to ignore things on their left side, to direct attention to where it should go.

“The findings might also inform policy and safety measures, including what kind of things are safe to have in the car environment and what types of billboards are more distracting than others.”

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