REDMOND, Wash. -- We're trained to hear the beeps, the pings and, of course, the ringtones.
But technological notifications that easily distract drivers from the road may now be used to do exactly the opposite -- bring our limited attention spans back to the road.
A study by Microsoft Research is based on the premise that we as humans can't multi-task as well as we think.
"What we're finding," said Dr. Eric Horvitz, "it's the cognition, the mental effort that goes into phone calls, not the motor issues of holding a phone in your hand."
"It doesn't seem that this is a behavior that's going to go away any time soon," said Dr. Shamsi Iqbal, even though laws have been passed against distracted driving, "We know it's dangerous."
Enter the team's virtual backseat driver, a computerized voice that warns drivers on the phone of construction areas, school zones, and where they need to turn, even putting the caller on hold until the scenario has passed.
At this point, the project is only in a research phase, but Horvitz said he sees the technology being built into cars and tied not only to GPS data, but also weather charts and historical data on crashes in a given region.
It's also a very personal mission for Dr. Horvitz, who lost his mother in 1987 to a car accident.
"If this technology could be used to remove even just one of these red dots," said Horvitz, pointing at a map of recent fatalities in King County, "...it's worth the whole project, of course and many other projects like this."
In essence, the computer distracts the distracted driver back to the road.
"Turn ahead, call on hold," said the voice during one scenario.
And later: "Construction ahead... call on hold."
"You may resume," it said, after passing through the zone.
Horvitz and Iqbal focused their research on hands-free calling. In a three-week study they took drivers and callers in pairs, they said. Through a speaker phone, the callers would ask the driver questions. Iqbal said even with hands-free calling, they saw an increase in virtual crashes and missed turns over a control group that only drove through the scenario.
Researchers studied several scenarios -- mixing up short vs. long computerized notices, warnings that came shortly before or right when the danger appeared, and hold vs. no hold for the caller.
The combination that appeared to produce the best results had a short warning that came right before the danger appeared and put the call on hold.
Horvitz said with a little computerized guidance, driving mistakes decreased by more than 20 percent.
"We found that drivers really like being helped by a system like this," said Iqbal.
Interestingly, the main complaint researchers heard came from callers talking to the driver who didn't like being put on hold.
According to researchers, one caller commented, “Not sure if I like my behavior dictated by a computer,” while another remarked, “hate being put on hold.”
The study is entitled "Hang on a Sec! Effects of Proactive Mediation of Phone Conversations while Driving."