The man who drove, blinding himself, on Route 128 — for your safety

John Senders led a series of safety experiments in which he drove an automobile on Route 128 — the major highway that circles Boston to the west — while a visor repeatedly flapped down over his face, blinding him.

This was in 1963, just a few years after the Kingston Trio sang the era’s most famous transportation saga: “Charlie on the MTA”

The musical story of poor old Charlie riding ‘neath the streets of Boston is fictional. The story of John Senders driving along Route 128 with a visor electromechanically flapping down and up (rapidly and repeatedly) is real.

The point was to see how much distraction a driver could tolerate under normal driving conditions.

At the time, Senders worked at Bolt, Beranek and Newman, in Cambridge. Years later, he described the project:

Somebody [in the Bureau of Public Roads, which is now called the Federal Highway Administration] called up and asked if I had any ideas about how to investigate normal driving? Safe driving. So I thought for about a minute, and I said, “Yes”. He said “Send me a letter,” so I wrote, and they sent money. It was about $300,000.

We did what had taken about a minute of thought, which was to think back to the time I was driving from Wright Field to Cleveland and we had a constant windshield wiper sweep rate, and I observed that there was a maximum speed at which I could go on a perfectly straight road. Above that speed I had made the observation that on a perfectly straight road with periodic looks at a fixed rate and a fixed duration there was a critical speed above which I could not drive in comfort, but below which I could  drive completely comfortably. And when I was asked ten years later, about 1963, when I was asked if I had any ideas about safe driving it came immediately to mind, and I said,”Yes”. I set up in my head the experiments, then I wrote them down.

A fuller account, with technical details, graces the pages of a study: “The Attentional Demand of Automobile Driving,” John W. Senders, et al., Highway Research Record, vol. 195, 1967, pp. 15-33. The video, above, is a more vivid summary of what happened.

We awarded John Senders the 2011 Ig Nobel Prize for public safety.

Senders these days shakes his head at people who converse on telephones while they drive. That amount of distraction, he says, pushes people near or into the danger zone.

But phone conversation is not the worst common distraction drivers face. The worst cognitive load, says John Senders, comes from family members arguing while their car sails down the road.



Marc Abrahams is the editor of the Annals of Improbable Research magazine and organizer of the Ig Nobel Prizes.
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