Do head-up displays lead the wrong way to safety?

June 30, 2015 // By Christoph Hammerschmidt
In vehicles, head-up displays (HUDs) have been developed to reduce driver distraction and help drivers to keep their eyes on the street by displaying navigation information, road signs and other traffic relevant data at the windshield right in the driver’s field of sight; the goal of the technology is increasing traffic safety. A study of the university of Toronto now reveals that HUDs rather have the opposite effect – they actually can be a threat to safety, the study suggests.

“Drivers need to split their attention to deal with the added visual information” says professor Ian Spence from the department of psychology of the university of Toronto. Spence conducted research on what happens when two information sources appear within the same visual range. “Not only will drivers – as they always did – have to concentrate on what is happening on the road, but they will have to attend to whatever information pops up on the windshield in front of them”.

Along with two students, Spence developed two tests to measure how additional information in the field of vision will affect drivers reaction. Participants of the test were shown between one and nine randomly arranged spots at the windshield, and the participants had to report number and position of the spots as exactly as they could. In some tests the participants were shown a black square as an additional stimulus. The exactness of the test person’s report always was higher when the black square has not been shown. This led Spence to the conclusion that little attention as required to confirm that the square did not appear. However when the square was shown along with a low number of spots, it remained unnoticed in an albeit low percentage of cases – in one out of 15 occurrences. If more spots have been displayed in the field of vision, the number of incorrect reports increased significantly. The researchers concluded that when ever the attentiveness of the test persons was occupied by their primary task they had difficulties attending the secondary stimulus. In addition, the accuracy of the reports decreased as the number of spots shown increased. The researchers concluded in this case that if the primary tasks become more demanding, the test persons found it increasingly challenging to carry out both tasks.

In real-world driving this means that more visual information is experienced by drivers as more stressful. They for instance