Marc Gentzler Talks About Distracted Driving — Faculty Highlight

Can we practice texting and driving and improve our driving performance?

“No, we can’t,” said Marc Gentzler, professor, psychology, who has conducted research on the topic.

Marc has always been interested in transportation issues, as he grew up the son of a pilot. While at faculty-insight-news-idUniversity of Central Florida (UCF), studying for his Ph.D. in applied experimental human factors psychology, he was paired with a professor who conducted research in older adults about a decline in capabilities negatively affecting driving performance. His research has continued from there.

His latest research delves into whether practice actually makes perfect when it comes to texting and driving. It is well known that driving performance suffers when texting while driving, but less known is whether driving performance while texting could improve with practice. His longitudinal study involved analyzing a group of seven participants over at least two months using a UCF driving simulator that has three wide screens and a cut out of a car.

The study involved two key research questions: how texting while driving would be affected after the participants were trained to drive as well as possible on the simulator in a city scenario without distraction, and whether performance of texting and driving would improve with practicing on their own.

There were three main parts of the study. The first measured texting and driving performance before the participants were trained on how to drive the simulator. Many simulator studies do not actually train participants on driving the simulator and instead just have them practice for a few minutes to get acclimated. The problem with this method is that participants may still be learning to drive the simulator while being distracted. He trained the participants how to drive the simulator much like a driving instructor would train a student driver in the real world and measured their skills without distractions. And the third session re-introduced texting to their driving.

“After the training, as expected, errors in no distraction and texting sessions declined, thus it seemed that some of the errors in the texting sessions were due to difficulties driving the simulator. However, there was actually a bigger difference in errors between the no distraction sessions and the texting sessions after the training,” Marc explained. “This means that the errors in the texting session became more pronounced once participants became proficient in driving the simulator in the city scenario. So perhaps we have been underestimating the effects of texting and driving in previous simulator studies.”

“Further, the participants practiced texting and driving for several hours across several different sessions, but they did not improve. In fact, for the most part, they got worse!”

What’s next for Marc? Now he is working to publish this research and possibly infuse the findings into a driver’s education program.

He is also conducting survey research that will measure attitudes about internal-to-vehicle (i.e. cell phone, passenger) and external-to-vehicle distractors (i.e. pedestrians, signs), and how risky drivers feel the distractors are.

“For example, many people think hands-free is so much safer,” said Marc. “But hands free can be very difficult because you have to take your mind off of driving even though your hands are on the wheel and eyes on the road. Or, say you have a distractor in your car, like a phone, and you have a distractor outside, like a billboard. Many people say the external distractors are less disturbing; however, they can be as much or even more dangerous to driving performance than internal distractors.”

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