'Smart' wheelchair gives obstacles the runaround

Saturday, 30 July, 2005

Cars equipped with everything from the now ubiquitous mobile phone right through to collision warning systems are already on the road and even more high-tech gadgetry is on the way. All promise to enhance and even safeguard the driving experience but Dr Michael Regan has a warning for fleet buyers.

Dr Regan, Senior Research Fellow at Monash University's Accident Research Centre, urges fleet managers to take an active role in specifying safe and ergonomically sound technology. Dr Regan says most new in-car technology falls into three categories: entertainment, communications and intelligent transport systems (ITS).

On the communication front, the use of mobile phones has made the car an office on wheels. Despite research evidence showing that hands-free conversations are just as hazardous as handheld mobile calls, salespeople and technicians who spend hours on the road every day are generally expected to be instantly contactable. New mobile office technology will mean faxes, emails and even video messages will begin to compete for the driver's attention in the next few years.

ITSs are much more promising in terms of safety but even some of these can exacerbate existing road dangers unless they are ergonomically well designed and used cautiously. Sometimes the displays and controls are cumbersome, forcing drivers to shift their attention away from the road to the console. Other times, the system may be so successful we simply transfer our attention from keeping an eye on the road to doing secondary things, like talking on the mobile phone.

Clever systems can also lull drivers into a false sense of security. For example, drivers readily adapt to the use of some collision avoidance devices and soon rely on them completely. In one study, when such a device was made to fail, more than half of the drivers tested failed to take effective action and crashed.

The answer, says Dr Regan, is for fleet managers to take control. First, as buyers of between 60 to 70% of all new cars in Australia, they can demand that only ITSs with high safety potential are fitted. These will benefit not only their own drivers, but many other drivers when they are eventually resold. Intelligent over-speed warning systems and seatbelt reminders are two that stand out, he says.

Second, fleet managers should insist that the driver interfaces for all technologies are simple to use, ergonomic and can be managed with minimal driver distraction. While these design issues are foremost in the minds of most vehicle manufacturers, Dr Regan says the proliferation of entertainment, communication and ITS services on portable devices brought into the vehicle is proceeding largely unchecked.

Third, fleet managers need to be conscientious about driver training. Dr Regan argues that as car 'cockpits' increase in complexity, so should the level of training required before an employee gets behind the wheel of a company car. Armed with the right attitude and knowledge, drivers of the new millennium car will be both more comfortable and safer than ever before.

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