Passengers Can Help Drivers with Directions, Not Safety

A driver can get good help for directions from a passenger in the car – but there’s also an increased risk of a collision, according to new research.

That conclusion comes from a study performed by experts at the University of Illinois who used a simulator to judge drivers’ responses while talking to passengers, driving alone, driving while talking with someone on a cellphone and driving while talking to someone on a videophone.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that driving alone was the safest scenario of all. There were significantly fewer collisions than when drivers were having a conversation with passengers.
Passsengers did help drivers in some ways – by assisting them with directions and road signs. But, the experts said, they detracted from overall safety.

As was expected, driving while talking on a cellphone was the most dangerous scenario if the conversational partner couldn’t see the driver. The likelihood of a crash was more than tripled in that scenario.

But when the researchers used a videophone on their subject – meaning that the remote conversational partner could see what was happening from the driver’s point of view –

Passengers helped drivers find their exits and improved their memory of road signs, but they detracted from overall safety (avoidance of collisions), the likelihood of a collision dropped.

The study was led by University of Illinois psychology professor and Beckman Institute director Arthur Kramer, who led the research with postdoctoral fellow Kyle Mathewson and graduate student John Gaspar.

The drivers (all participants were college-age students) confronted a fairly challenging highway scene that involved merging and navigating around unpredictable drivers in other cars. The researchers kept track of the study drivers’ lateral moves, distance from other cars, speed, collisions, and ability to find and take a designated exit.

Kramer said the findings showed that a passenger or conversation partner can be a significant contributor to driving safety.

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