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Do away with distracted driving

Do away with distracted driving

More often than not, it is the sudden diversion of attention from the road ahead that causes a fatal accident. This form of distracted driving is usually due to using the mobile phone, looking at someone or something behind, trying to balance a coffee cup, or any such reason. HUNED CONTRACTOR writes on the various factors of distracted driving as also on the new technologies that automotive OEMs are developing to make vehicles safer.

In a recent tragic mishap, Suresh Gaur, his wife Pratima and their two children, Dhiraj and Sonakshi, were all killed in an accident on the Pune-Mumbai Expressway while on their way to attend a marriage. Investigation revealed that Suresh had been talking on his mobile phone and perhaps was so inattentive to the road ahead that he crashed into a tanker due to misjudgement of distance and speed. There are many such cases that happen with regular frequency on Indian roads, the reason, more often than not, distracted driving. The statistics are horrifying: one serious road accident in the country occurs every minute and 16 die on Indian roads every hour. There are, on an average, 1,214 road crashes every day in India. Two-wheelers account for 25 per cent of the total road crash deaths. More so, 20 children under the age of 14 die every day due to such accidents and 377 people die every day, equivalent to a jumbo jet crashing every day.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the top 10 cities with the highest number of road crash deaths are Delhi, Chennai, Jaipur, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Kanpur, Lucknow, Agra, Hyderabad and Pune. The frequency of traffic collisions in India is amongst the highest in the world. The Global Status Report on Road Safety published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) identified the major causes of traffic collisions as driving over the speed limit, driving under the influence of alcohol, and not using helmets and seat belts. Failure to maintain lane or yield to oncoming traffic when turning are prime causes of accidents on four-lane, non-access controlled national highways.
However, apart from the reasons cited above, the biggest contender emerging now is distracted driving – the act of driving while engaged in other activities such as looking after children, text messaging, talking on the phone or to a passenger, watching videos, eating, smoking, etc. According to the United States Department of Transportation, “Text messaging while driving creates a crash risk 23 times higher than driving while not distracted.” Despite these statistics, more than 37 per cent of drivers have admitted to sending or receiving text messages while driving and 18 per cent admit doing so regularly. “Most of the fatalities or serious injuries that have been recorded in accident cases during the past year have been due to people talking or text messaging on their mobile phones,” confirms Abhijeet Kadam Regional Transport Officer, Pune.

Types of distracted driving

Distractions while driving can be separated into three distinct groups: visual, manual, and cognitive. Visual distraction involves taking one’s eyes off the road, while manual distraction involves taking one’s hands off the wheel. Cognitive distraction occurs when an individual’s focus is not directly on the act of driving and his/her mind wanders. Distractions influenced by the advancement of technology, especially text messaging or talking on the phone, can require a combination of visual, manual, and cognitive attention from the driver, thus making these types of distractions particularly dangerous.

While a detailed study on distracted driving is yet to take place in India, according to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), apart from the menace of mobile phones, some foods and drinks can lead to dangerous distractions. McKeel Hagerty, President of Hagerty Classic Insurance Company, did a study to find out which foods were the worst to try to consume while driving. Coffee was the top offender because of its tendency to spill even if in a cup with a travel lid. Hot soup was second, followed by hamburgers and barbecued food. Moreover, using the GPS system while driving is also a prime reason for inattention to the road and traffic ahead. The study also revealed that young drivers have a greater tendency to be involved in distracted driving than elder individuals. Additionally, males have a greater tendency to engage in distracted driving activities.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety analysed nearly 1,700 videos that capture the actions of teenage drivers in the moments before a crash. It found that distractions were a factor in nearly six of ten moderate to severe crashes. Once again, the most common forms of distraction were talking or otherwise engaging with passengers and using a cell phone, including talking, text messaging and reviewing messages. Other forms of distraction observed in the videos included drivers looking away from the road at something inside the vehicle, singing or moving to music, grooming and reaching for an object. In one video released by AAA, a teenage boy is seen trying to navigate a turn on a rain-slicked road with one hand on the wheel and a cell phone held to his ear in the other hand. The car crosses a lane of traffic and runs off the road, stopping just short of railroad tracks that run parallel to the road.

Technology to increase safety

While airbags play an important role in creating a safety barrier during a collision or any other severe impact (even though many low-end models in India are yet to offer this component), a new range of vehicle safety technologies is now making its way into the market, aimed at removing the human-error factor and preventing accidents. Collision avoidance or warning systems have been a recent focus of in-car technology. Manufacturer research and development aims to make vehicles safer by reducing driver reaction times in emergency braking situations and in some cases to remove the need for drivers to react at all. Safety systems and technologies vary between automotive makers, but the principle is to use cameras or sensors, often laser or radar, to detect when a vehicle is approaching another vehicle too closely or too quickly. The system sends audio or visual cues to the driver to warn of an impending collision.

In more advanced technology systems, brakes are applied, seat belts pre-tensioned, and windows closed all automatically by the on-board computerised safety system. This technology is also being used to avoid accidents involving lane changes and blind spots in side rear view mirrors. Blind zone alert and lane departure systems also use sensors to warn drivers of objects travelling in blind spots that would otherwise require drivers to remove their eyes from the road. Further, reverse cameras now come with cross-traffic warning safety systems to prevent you from reversing out of a parking spot and into oncoming traffic. Audio and visual signals typically alert drivers of any approaching vehicles due to cross their path, giving drivers a chance to stop and avoid a collision. These technologies are also useful during moments of distracted driving because the alarm system gets the attention of the driver in time to maybe avoid a collision.

Voice-activated smart technology, similar to the technology used in modern smartphones, is now being used to operate in-car audio and navigation devices. In addition to convenience, this technology means less time spent looking at the vehicle’s audio and navigational systems to operate them and more time spent with eyes safely on the road. Most vehicle manufacturers have their own version of an infotainment system, but technologies such as Buick’s IntelliLink allow you to program your music or your navigation system with voice commands. According to a report, testing is already under way on a wireless system that will allow vehicles to communicate with each other and other technologies such as traffic signals, road signs, and curb sensors.

Taking the initiative

Concerned about the increasing incidence of accidents due to distracted driving and other causes, automotive OEMs are now seriously focusing on how their cars and commercial vehicles can be made safer and prevent loss of human life. For instance, Swedish automotive manufacturer Volvo has long kept track of how many people are seriously injured or killed while driving its vehicles. It uses this data to see how much safer it can make its vehicles in the event of a crash. Now, the company has made a bold promise — by 2020 there will be no serious injuries or fatalities in a Volvo car or SUV. This does not, of course, preclude people from driving recklessly and getting themselves killed. However, conventional driving should be made much safer with the inclusion of a number of technologies. It starts with making the interior of the car safer with improved airbags and restraints.

Volvo already has various smart features in its cars. Adaptive cruise control, for example, is already available on many cars. It allows you to set a maximum speed, but uses radar to maintain a safe distance from the car in front of you. It can even apply the brakes if need be. This can be taken a step further with full collision avoidance. When a crash is likely, the driver will be warned. If action isn’t taken, the car can begin braking to avoid, or at least minimise the impact. A relatively new technology that Volvo plans to make use of extensively is lane assistance. Cars will use cameras to detect lanes and alert the driver if they begin to drift. This has been found to dramatically reduce crashes from dozing off at the wheel and distracted driving. Road signs can be identified by cameras as well to help alert drivers to posted speed limits and upcoming hazards.

Cameras will also be used to watch for pedestrians in the vicinity of the vehicle. This is similar to the technology that is used in self-driving cars to identify potential obstacles on the road. The driver can be alerted if a person is in the car’s path and the brake can be automatically applied. Companies like Ford and Tesla are moving quickly toward fully autonomous vehicles. Then there’s Google’s self-driving car program. Volvo too is in the early stages of driverless technology, and handing control over to a computer when it’s clear something is wrong could be a step in that direction. “While such technologies are now becoming mandatory additions to a car, the Indian car market too is maturing fast towards adoption of such devices and safety over price is now an important consideration,” Werner Eichhorn, Sales & Marketing Head, Skoda, said in an interview recently.

One such company taking the lead in devising new braking technologies is Jacobs Vehicle Systems, the creator of the engine brake. Revealing the company’s new technologies that can help make driving safer, Kunal Sharma, the company’s India Business Manager, elaborates about the dedicated cam. JVS custom designs and manufactures a class of high-performance engine brakes that utilise a dedicated engine braking cam lobe. The dedicated cam profile has compression-release and brake-gas recirculation lobes that are optimised for each application. Another example is of eTPU. “We develop control systems that act on precise timing signals such as the cam and crank shafts by selecting microcontrollers that contain a second microprocessor specifically designed to handle high-speed timing signals—the enhanced Time Processing Unit (eTPU). This microprocessor executes timing-related code concurrently with the main controller code in the primary processor, meaning that timing signals are acted upon extremely quickly and without interrupting the primary application code,” he explains.

In fact, companies are now setting up technology centres to specifically develop products that can enhance the safety aspect of any vehicle. As for example Faurecia, a global leader in providing engineering solutions and automotive components, that has set up dedicated technology centres in Pune and Bengaluru, the former for interior, seating and exterior and the latter for emissions control technologies. Active headrests, curtain airbags, airbag explosion through seat seam line, structural design of door panels with honey comb geometry, etc are the various design methodologies being worked upon to reduce head impact criterion (HIC), neck impact criterion (NIC) or pelvic impact.

Considerable development is also being done in the area of shock absorbers so as to lessen the force of the impact during a collision. Duroshox, with its two state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities in Pune, focuses on development of assemblies and sub-modules that are used in suspensions and specialised seating-related applications. Its product portfolio includes seating suspensions, seating frames, seat adjustors/slides, two and three-wheeler shock absorbers, etc. “All our products are manufactured keeping safety as a prime factor,” says Anshul Goel, Managing Director, Duroshox (P) Ltd.

Continental Automotive Components, for instance, has a dedicated R&D facility, the Technical Center India (TCI), which develops automotive technology and provides software services for the automotive group. “In addition, we have engineering talent across our other locations in India, including Bommasandra in Bengaluru. At TCI, over 1,000 engineers work on highly advanced technologies for mature markets while developing locally relevant solutions for emerging markets like India. TCI engineers in India are developing ABS solutions for two-wheelers alongside highly sophisticated technologies for domains such as advanced driver assistance systems. Continental’s one-channel ABS solution, MiniMAB, is a small and lightweight solution for scooters and small motorcycles while the two-channel ABS solution, MK100 MAB, provides improved brake control and thus more driving safety through an optimised deceleration,” informs Girish Kamala, Head, Key Account Management.

New road ahead

Extending the success of the Android ecosystem, which has seen over one billion devices activated to date, a coalition of automotive and technology companies announced a new industry alliance aimed at bringing the Android platform to a device that’s always been mobile: the car. Audi, GM, Google, Honda, Hyundai and NVIDIA have joined together to form the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA), a global alliance of technology and automotive industry leaders committed to bringing the Android platform to cars, an initiative that was flagged off in 2014. The OAA is dedicated to a common platform that will drive innovation, and make technology in the car safer and more intuitive for everyone.

The OAA is aimed at accelerating auto innovation with an approach that offers openness, customisation and scale, key tenets that have already made Android a familiar part of millions of people’s lives. This open development model and common platform will allow automotive OEMs to more easily bring cutting-edge technology to their drivers, and create new opportunities for developers to deliver powerful experiences for drivers and passengers in a safe and scalable way.

“The worlds of consumer and automotive technologies have never been more closely aligned, and this alliance will only pave the way for faster innovation,” says Ricky Hudi, Head of Electrics/Electronics Development at AUDI AG. “Working toward a common ecosystems benefits driver safety above all,” he adds. Meanwhile, companies like Maruti Suzuki, Henkel and others too have started their own initiatives to not only create awareness about safe driving methods but also create products that ensure minimum damage.

Safety Tips

  • Before beginning a long drive, always get enough sleep and eat something before you go. Highly caffeinated beverages are not necessarily the best way to stay awake while driving. While initially you will feel more alert, the effects can recede with time, and your attention may wander although you remain awake.
  • Pull over and take breaks every couple of hours, even if you don’t feel sleepy. Grab a snack, get some fresh air, and stretch your legs by walking around.
  • If you can, share the driving responsibilities with someone else. This will allow you to keep an eye on each other while driving and also enable you to nap without losing time.
  • If you do have to pull over, move your vehicle off the road. Never park on the shoulder or in the breakdown lane for any reason except an emergency.
  • Avoid talking and texting on the mobile phone. Use a hands-free device.
  • Never drink any alcohol before your trip.
  • If you are driving a rental vehicle, familiarise yourself with the car and all of its equipment (horn, brakes, etc) before you hit the road. At times, distraction caused due to searching for the right switch or accessory could lead to a fatal mishap.
  • Before setting off on a long car trip, be sure your vehicle is in prime condition – that tyres are properly inflated, all fluids are at their proper levels and you have a full tank of petrol, diesel or gas.
  • On longer trips, keep napkins, plasticware and a small cooler handy for meals on the go. Keep a set of jumper cables, a spare tyre and extra fluids for the car in your trunk.
  • Make sure everyone in the car buckles his or her seat belt. Not only will it keep you safe, but in many places it’s also the law.

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