Interview with Distracted-Driving Pioneer Senders

John Senders, whose daringly careful experiments during the 1960s earned him an Ig Nobel Prize in safety engineering, in 2011, has had lots of time to think about is work and its implications. Carolyn Johnson interviews him in today’s Boston Globe ideas section. Here’s part of that:

Distracted driving, 1962 edition

Long before cell phones, John Senders took to the highway blind — for science

SENDERS: What I did was to take a motorcycle helmet and sandblast the visor so it would let light through, but not the detail . . . . Then we had a rather primitive vacuum tube time generator with controls on it, so that whenever it raised the visor it would keep it up for a quarter or half or three-quarters of a second or a whole second or whatever. A switch would trigger it and that we stuck on the light switch — in those days, the headlights had a dimmer switch, operated by the left foot, high beam or low beam. It was on the foot  — we didn’t want to mess with driving.

IDEAS: What did you find?

SENDERS: I was trying to find out how much attention is required for just driving down the road, because what’s left over could be construed as the safe reserve that you might have if something unusual came up.

We were able to measure how much time a driver had to spend looking, as a function of the speed of travel. And the faster you go, the more often you have to look. That doesn’t surprise anyone, but we at one point ran the delay between looks up to 9 seconds, and two people were able to drive with a half second look every 9 seconds. They couldn’t go very fast, but they drove. And then one person refused to drive at all. She couldn’t move. So that was about the limit…. [read the entire interview]

Here’s video of the original experiment: