Saturday, December 22, 2012

Signals, Perception, Behavior : Questions, Blurs and Hints

In transportation circles, most often in Europe but not uniquely there, we often hear the term "behavior modification", which is usually brandished as something brain2that somebody else has to learn to do and cope with. More often than not this matter of behavior modification when it comes to how, when and where people drive cars, but we can also hear about it with reference to pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers and street denizens. And as we can see from the results, this matter of behavior and modification turns out to be quite a challenge.

Let us consider briefly the case of the sensory and choice network of an average driver.

Neurological studies show that a person responsible for a moving vehicle has to receive and somehow process on the order of two hundred perceptional signals per second as the dynamic information background against which he makes his choices and actions at the wheel. Some of these signals are very evident, such as clearly delineated visual events in ones direct field of perception on a clear day.  Others can be far more subtle and out on the extreme limits of perception -- conscious and otherwise. But they are all out there - sight, sounds, smells, vibrations, taste, and touch, as well as awarenesses of balance, sense of time, temperature changes, acceleration, pain, and a few more  -- and together make up the sensory universe of your and my central nervous system as the broad, chaotic and ever-changing backdrop to the choices and the reflexes and reactions thus to be engaged. Two hundred of them!  Each second!

It is useful to have all this in mind when it comes to making informed policy decisions and determining actions in our sector.

When we think about it this way, there are several useful thoughts from both a personal safety and public policy perspective that come immediately to mind.

The first is to make sure that the drivers of these hurtling masses of steel and plastics are not distracted or sensory-deprived in any way by alcohol, drugs, distractions, fatigue, aggressive personality and the other usual afferent troublemakers.

But a second measure and above all solution to many of these sensory challenges and the dangers that occur when they are overloaded is even more salient.  And that is the importance of slowing down traffic in areas where there are pedestrians, cyclists, older people, children and others out on the streets who are not necessarily clearly evident to the driver of a speeding vehicle with the limited scope of vision that necessarily comes with it.

We shall be inviting contributions and looking into these matters in the context of the attempted more to more sustainable transportation systems in cities over course of 2013, in an attempt to figure out how all this hooks into and influences public policy and private practice on the street.

One point that it immediately brings up, and that is the importance of bringing in the skills of neuroscientists, behavioral psychologists and other social scientists into the usually engineer-dominated world of transportation planning and decisions. Self-evident really if we bear in mind that transportation is at the end of the day about people and not vehicles or infrastructure.

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