GPS improves road safety

Personal navigation devices have linked to a 12 per cent decrease in damage incidents

New research has revealed that the use of Personal Navigation Devices (PND), such as GPS mapping devices, could reduce crash risk and have a positive effect on driver safety.

From data collected on 115,197 drivers of rental cars in the Netherlands in the second half of 2006, researchers from Dutch science and technology think-tank, TNO, found that cars fitted with PNDs had a 12 per cent lower rate of damage incidents when compared to cars without PNDs.

Drivers using PNDs experienced an average of 25 per cent less stops and 35 per cent less time standing still on the road. Driving distances with PNDs were found to be reduced by 16 per cent and travel time by 18 per cent, resulting in an overall reduction of fuel costs.

When TNO surveyed the participating drivers, results revealed that 78 per cent of drivers felt more alert and in control with a navigation system than without. Researchers also found that drivers using PNDs displayed behaviour that was only half as aggressive as those without the device.

Stress when driving with a PND was found to be reduced by 20 per cent, as drivers reported exerting 'little effort' to navigate unfamiliar territory with PNDs, compared with 'fair' to 'considerable' stress experienced using conventional navigation resources, such as static road maps.

The research was co-commissioned by PND vendor TomTom and Dutch insurance company Delta Lloyd, and results have now lead Delta Lloyd to offer TomTom product owners a 10 per cent discount on their Delta Lloyd auto insurance.

But Australian insurance company AAMI is sceptical.

"It is difficult to say whether PND/GPS devices have the potential to improve driver safety," said Christine Elmer, national public relations manager of AAMI. "Certainly, we have heard the opposite case put [by other media reports] - that satellite navigation devices have contributed to crashes due to inaccurate or incorrect information being given to the driver."

Associate professor Michael Regan of the Monash University Accident Research Centre agrees that the use of PNDs has its pros and cons. While several separate studies have proven that PNDs are beneficial in unfamiliar territories as they reduce both travel distance and cognitive workload, Regan said, poorly designed PNDs can also be a distraction to drivers.

"We know that if people fixate on objects or activities going on in the car for more than a second and a half, their risk of crashing increases by about four or five times," Regan said, noting on the other hand that "even a badly designed navigation system probably won't distract you much more than a paper map."

Well-designed PNDs have three critical characteristics, Regan said, including: convenient positioning in the cockpit to encourage drivers to keep their eyes on the road; a 'lock out' function that only allows the device to be operated when the car is at a standstill, so drivers don't play with the devices while driving; and voice instructions rather than complicated visual maps.

"Provided they're well designed, they [PNDs] have excellent potential to improve driving performance and to reduce crash risk," he concluded.

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