Hi-tech cars distract driver

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MODERN, top-of-the-range cars provide so much information on their dashboard displays that they distract the driver, according to new research.

"Cars like that have up to 100 pieces of information on the dash, and it produces a sensory overload so that the drivers miss important visual warning signals from the road," said Dr Charles Spence of the University of Oxford.

Tests in driving simulators have also shown that drivers who hold mobile phones are distracted by the attempt to hold a conversation and concentrate on the road.

"Your senses are very highly integrated," said Dr Spence. "You can't stimulate one without affecting the other. Research in Canada has shown that holding a mobile phone is as dangerous as drink-driving. The reason is that it divides your attention."

One solution to the latter problem would be to locate the sounds coming from the phone in front of the driver, so that their attention is not split between a point in front of them - the road - and the phone at their ear.

"People performed up to 25 per cent better in our tests when the visual and auditory communications come from the same position," said Dr Spence.

Even hands-free phones lead to a higher risk of having an accident, though Dr Spence said that those who continue to use their phones might in time adapt to the conflicting sources of data. "But you can't separate the two," said Dr Spence. "We have adapted to integrating them over millions of years."

The problem of conflicting sources of information is now creeping into the fly-by-wirecockpits of digitally controlled fighter planes.

"Pilots don't have a sense of what's going on because sensory information is lost in electronic planes," he said.

"In fly-by-wire planes the joystick moves smoothly no matter what's happening. There is some work now to try to add vibration to the joystick in certain situations as feedback to alert the pilot when something unusual is happening."