Eye Tracking Could Help Make Driving Safer

can be reached at meehna@gmail.com
can be reached at meehna@gmail.com
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The constant refrain to drivers is, “keep your eyes on the road”.  For good reason. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 3,166 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers in 2017. That’s nine percent of all the reported crashes that year.

  • Distracted driving causes thousands of casualties each year.
  • Although vehicle-assisted safety technology helps avert accidents, in some cases it can add to driver distraction.
  • By establishing a two-way communication between a vehicle’s safety system and a driver’s eyes, researchers hope to reduce accidents from distracted driving.

Distractions are classified into three types: visual (eyes off the road); cognitive (mind off the road); and manual (hands off the steering wheel). In essence, distraction occurs when drivers focus on something other than the road ahead.  Distractions such as using the phone and texting get a lot of press, but also include eating, putting on makeup, fiddling with the radio or even talking to another passenger.

Over 3,000 people were killed from accidents involving distracted driving. (Photo: Getty Images)

Collision warning systems can cause accidents

New cars come equipped with advanced warning systems to alert a driver of an impending crash. Paradoxically, those warnings can be a distraction unto themselves. When you see a flashing light on your windshield or dashboard and/or hear a warning in the cabin, your attention gets drawn there.

As reported by Tech Xplore, researchers at the University of Missouri recognized the quandary and developed eye-tracking technology to address the problem, concluding:

“Therefore, a two-way communication channel needs to exist between a driver and a vehicle. For instance, if a driver is aware of a possible crash, then the vehicle does not have to warn the driver as much”, said Jung Hyup Kim, an assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering in the MU College of Engineering.”  However, if a vehicle provides an alert that, by itself, creates a distraction, it could also cause a crash.”

 Eyes as a window to safety

Kim and Xiaonan Yang, a graduate student at MU, studied how people’s pupils change when they responded to an alert from a vehicle’s collision avoidance system. By getting a first-hand perspective into driver behavior via the reaction of the pupil, Kim and Rui Tang, a graduate student at MU, hope scientists can find a way to decrease accidents from distracted driving.

Putting on makeup while behind the wheel is just one form of distracted driving. (Photo: Getty Images)

To collect data, the researchers used a driving simulator at the MU College of Engineering to evaluate a driver’s behavior in real time at the moment of the crash, with a focus on the eyes.

“We saw the size of a person’s pupil changed depending on the behavioral response to the severity of the accident,” Kim said. “Now, we want to take that data, find common patterns and build a model to test how we could help decrease distracted-driving crashes.”

With this data, researchers believe they could develop a two-way communication model between the vehicle and the driver to optimize when and how a driver receives a warning from the vehicle-assisted safety system to prevent an accident.

The studies done by Kim and his colleagues were presented in the conference papers, “Evaluating rear-end vehicle accident using pupillary analysis in a driving similar environment,” and “Pupillary response and EMG predict upcoming responses to collision avoidance warning,” at the 2019 International Conference on Applied Human Factors and Ergonomics in Washington, D.C.


The advancement in vehicle safety technology has done a lot to protect drivers on the road. If warning systems can be tweaked to alert a driver of an impending collision without contributing to the distraction, our roads will be even that much safer.

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can be reached at meehna@gmail.com
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