Pay attention please

29 October 2005

As automotive IT continues to proliferate, so too do the sources of distraction for the innattentive driver. Thank heaven, then, for the likes of Oxford University academic Dr Charles Spence.

Spence's topic of interest is the science of attention: studying how the mind manages the information arriving from the five external senses, the sense of prioperception that allows us to gauge where our limbs are in relation to each other, plus the introspective urge to switch off the external world and daydream. In short, he studies how we decide what to think about.

It's worth a wander around his web site, and reading up the few recent reports about his findings.

Some of the info is intuitive: an audible warning of an impending rear-end impact is more effective if it appears to come from behind the driver, for example. And a suitable word such as "ahead" or "behind", used as an alert, is more likely to be correctly interpreted by the innattentive driver than the simulated sound of a horn from the front or rear speakers.

Other results are more intriguing. For example, a driver distracted by a phone call is more likely to be able to continue to concentrate on the road ahead if the speakerphone sound comes from dead ahead, because the driver's brain does not have to divide its attention in two physical directions.

As Spence suggests, something as simple as speakers built into the windscreen frame could save lives.

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