Be the subject of a research project

Darren D’Altorio

Reporter shares experience that’s available to all students

In a back office on the third floor of Kent Hall, Dr. John Gunstad, assistant professor of psychology, is working to make driving safer.

Starting next week, Gunstad will begin a semester-long research project that will illuminate how people are affected by simple distractions — like texting and eating — while driving a car.

To conduct the research, Gunstad is calling for 150 student volunteers to participate, allowing them the opportunity to sample something they didn’t know before and think in a way they maybe didn’t think before, he said.

There are two parts to the research, Gunstad said.

“One part is asking people what type of distractive behaviors they do on a regular basis,” he said. “How often do you text while driving, talk on your cell phone, eat, change your clothes — just to get a baseline of how often these occur.”

The second part of the research, which Gunstad described as the “fun and novel” part, is the driving simulator.

I became a lab rat for Gunstad’s research. I buckled into the driving simulator for an experimental run through the roads of distraction. I sat, somewhat comfortably, in the seat of the mock car chassis and slid into position. My feet felt the sensitivity of the chrome gas and break pedals. My sweaty palms tested the steering wheel’s turning radius. I placed my cell phone on the makeshift dashboard.

A flat-screen television monitor lit my face in the dim simulation room. On the screen, a pre-PlayStation 3 looking digital neighborhood was waiting for me to navigate it. Gunstad and Lindsay Miller, the study director for the project, stood off to the side, waiting to bombard me with text messages.

I hit the gas, accelerating the car to 50 mph.

“What’s the speed limit in this part of town?” I asked Gunstad.

“Twenty-five,” he replied. “The simulator has you moving through a residential neighborhood, to a more highway-like setting, then into a city. It simulates a typical 15-minute commute one would make on a daily basis.”

“Can I get a speeding ticket?” I inquired.

“Yes, there are police officers,” he said.

So, my driving habits — habits that have earned me about seven speeding tickets in my seven-year driving career — were immediately apparent.

The machine, which cost around $25,000 from grant funding and other money allocated to the psychology department for research, recorded my movements 60 times per second. Every shift of the wheel, touch of the brake, every infraction or perfection was documented.

Gunstad said the machine is calibrated to accurately duplicate situations drivers would encounter on the road, from pedestrians crossing city streets, to navigating a construction zone, to the car sliding if the brakes are slammed too hard.

Buzz. As I exited the residential area and saw a 55-mph speed limit sign, my phone vibrated on the dash. I reached for it. The car veered left. I took a deep breath.

“What is your birthday?” the message asked.

I flipped my phone open to access the keyboard. The wheel was too far away from my knee to pull one of those crafty knee steering maneuvers. No choice, I had to drive one-handed and type with the other. I replied, drifting from left to right, trying to keep the car in my lane.

“Message sent,” I said victoriously, having not killed anyone or driven off the road. I put the phone into my lap.

Buzz, another text. Keeping my eyes on the road, I grabbed the phone.

“Inbox 100-percent full,” the front screen read, prompting me to delete messages now or later.

“Damn, my inbox is full,” I said to Gunstad. “Now I have to select messages to delete, then wait for the text to be delivered, then respond to it.”

“Wow. We didn’t take that into consideration,” Miller said. “We’ll have to make sure peoples’ inboxes are free before they start the simulator.”

“This is a real-life situation though,” I said. “This happens to people every day, I’m sure.”

After more veering, speeding and texting, I slammed head-on into a car that tried to pass a semi in the oncoming lane. A massive crack shot across the flat-screen television. That ride was over.

Sophomore Spanish major Steve Larson said a research project like this is interesting to him.

“I personally like the idea of understanding our human flaws,” he said. “Learning pushes us to find solutions.”

Matt Ingles, sophomore international relations major, said he had to participate in a research study for his general psychology class.

“The study I had to do was a waste of my time,” he said. “But this driving study sounds fun. Kill the bastards, sign me up.”

Larson said participating in a research study would be enticing if it’s “something worthwhile, not just an experiment with no meaning.”

Gunstad said the goal of the research is to present the research at conferences and have it published in scientific journals.

“We’re going to figure out what causes distractions while driving,” Gunstad said. “Then we’re going to find better ways to make people stop doing it.”

If the research goes well, more projects are in the future, such as how mixing caffeine with alcohol affects peoples’ risk perception when making the decision to drive.

Contact features reporter Darren D’Altorio at [email protected].