Dr. John W. Senders visits the Transportation Research Center

Dr. Senders with Dr. Littenberg, UVM College of Medicine and Dr. Aultman-Hall, UVM Transportation Research Center
Story and photo by Jody Ciano

Dr. John W. Senders was driving in a heavy rainstorm in 1953, fixed windshield wipers of the time going back and forth, back and forth, when he observed something: He was comfortable driving at 32 mph but at 34 mph he was distressed.  From that one observation, Dr. Senders became interested in transportation and began serious pioneering research about the attention span needed for safe driving.

Dr. Senders, Professor Emeritus of Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto, Adjunct Professor of Law at York University (Toronto), and the 2006 recipient of the James Marsh Professor-At-Large at the University of Vermont, captivated an audience at the Frank Livak Ballroom in the Davis Center on March 16, 2011 with his presentation, “Dissecting Motor Vehicle Accidents: Can We Find the Lethal Distraction?”  In a 1960’s video, while driving a 1965 Dodge Polara and accompanied by two BBC cameramen passengers, Dr. Senders tested the attentional demands of automobile driving.  “While everyone was investigating accidents, no one was investigating normal driving,” Senders said. “Distracted drivers are usually defined by the subsequent accident.  However, if there is no accident was there distractions?”

Wearing a modified motorcycle helmet equipped with a translucent visor affixed with a pneumatic cylinder that pivots up and down at a set rate to occlude his view, Dr. Senders is seen driving on Technology Highway, Route 128 outside of Boston. All the while, he is giving an extemporaneous dialogue, “because speaking takes attention away from the driver and vice versa,” stated Senders.

Dr. Senders with the Transportation Research Center's Graduate Scholars

Bombarded with a steady intake of information: visual input (the road, other vehicles, signs, pedestrians and animals); auditory input (the radio, cell phone, a conversation with another passenger); and other internal input (anticipating the upcoming turnoff, what’s for dinner?), the demands on the driver from outside sources are constantly competing for attention.  Senders points out, however, that humans are a great processing machine and much of our information processing is stored in our memory and outside of awareness. Drivers for the most part accomplish what they set out to do even when the driver’s attention is not continuous and only intermittently directed to the road. In his 1966 published paper on this research, “The Attentional Demand of Automobile Driving,” Senders writes, “The 0.50-sec viewing time was apparently long enough to provide nearly all the information needed to drive at any speed, and only a slight increase in velocity was expected to occur with a 1.0-sec viewing time.”

The James Marsh Professors-at-Large Program brings to the University outstanding individuals of international distinction in the arts and humanities, sciences, social sciences, and applied fields.The event was hosted by Lisa Aultman-Hall, Director of the Transportation Research Center and Dr. Ben Littenberg of the College of Medicine.

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