First Person

MIT AgeLab scientist Bryan Reimer on the perils of driver distraction

The author of new research on driving awareness explains that even the simplest tasks can be a problem.

Photograph by Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
MIT AgeLab scientist Bryan Reimer, shown with a research car, says lifelong driver education is critically needed.

The driver’s seat is a fascinating setting in which to study HUMAN DECISION MAKING. Where else do you have people practicing a highly learned activity with a major safety implication involved with failure?

Hands-free technology can allow a driver to keep both hands on the wheel. However, it may not offer all the SAFETY ADVANTAGES that many believe. The act of conversing can be quite demanding. The type of conversation plays a role. A quick call home to say I’m running late is far less absorbing than a discussion surrounding a complex business decision. Anecdotally, it is easy to see how we may talk more when unencumbered by the act of holding a phone.

The automotive industry as a whole is committed to providing drivers with appropriate levels of connectivity, but the industry really doesn’t have the full capability to assess what is appropriate. We need investments in


research and a leveling of the playing field between manufacturers as to what offerings are appropriate. Partially autonomous systems will help PROTECT US FROM COLLISION, and more advanced methods of monitoring the driver’s status through measures such as heart rate and eye movements can provide a better indication of how much capacity a driver has to respond to changing conditions. I can see the vehicle taking more control or enforcing a more CONSERVATIVE DRIVING STYLE if the vehicle detects that you are trying to do too much. 

With our demand for connectivity, I don’t see things much different five years from now than they are today. The overlaying problem that we want to drive and do other things simultaneously will remain.

— As told to Craig Fitzgerald. Interview has been edited and condensed.