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Will vibrating steering wheel reduce distracted driving?

Linda Melone

A GPS device can be valuable when you’re behind the wheel, but it can be distracting as well. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and AT&T Labs think they’ve found a way to keep drivers’ eyes on the road: vibrating steering wheels.

Reducing driving distractions may decrease the risk of crashing, since drivers who use handheld devices (like some GPS devices and smartphones) are four times more likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Accidents determine insurance rates,” says Tim Dodge, a spokesman for Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of New York, a trade group. “Less frequent and less severe accidents tend to reduce rates over the long term, while more frequent and more severe accidents have the opposite effect.”

Rotating guidance

Here’s how the Carnegie Mellon-AT&T invention works: The steering wheel contains 20 “actuators” (tiny motors that vibrate) on the front face of the wheel, which can activate in any order. “Actuators firing in a clockwise direction from 1 o’clock to 5 o’clock positions on the wheel signal the driver to make a right turn,” says SeungJun Kim, a scientist at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. Likewise, a counterclockwise series of vibrations from 11 o’clock to 7 o’clock indicate a left turn is in order.

The computer-based simulator enables participants to glance away from the road significantly less than when using a simple GPS device — 9 percent less for younger drivers and 4 percent less for older drivers.

Using a computer-based simulator, researchers demonstrated that not all age groups benefit equally from the additional help of the actuators. The test involved 16 younger drivers and 17 older drivers. The younger drivers (ages 16 to 36) were less distracted by the navigation’s display screen when they received the directional cues from the vibrating steering wheel, Kim says. Older drivers (over 65), on the other hand, found the added sensory tactic difficult to process.

Wheel may not reduce premiums

Whether the new steering wheels affect car insurance rates remains to be seen, says Brian Kane, owner of Donnelly & Sproul Insurance in New Jersey.

Insurers “won’t build in a discount for something that may keep you from driving distracted (such as looking at a GPS), since you should have your eyes on the road anyway,” Kane says. “How could it ever be monitored?”

Still, anything that promotes auto safety interests the insurance industry, says Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute.

Worters says this new steering wheel would need to be studied over time to show whether it prevents accidents. “It is too early to tell what impact this type of technology would have on insurance rates, if any,” she says.

If the vibrating steering wheel costs considerably more than a traditional steering wheel, it actually might send insurance rates higher, says Keith Verisario, vice president of All-Security Insurance Agency in Illinois. “A steering wheel that’s five times more expensive to fix or replace than a standard steering wheel is like costly side-view mirrors with LED lighting on newer cars,” he says.

Since the vibrating steering wheel needs to be studied more, it’s unclear whether the wheels will cost more than standard steering wheels. However, according to Kim, materials used in the prototypes (such as motors and memory foam) usually cost only a couple of hundred dollars. No cars being manufactured now are equipped with vibrating steering wheels.

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