Objective: This study used the looking-at-nothing phenomenon to explore situation awareness (SA) and the effects of working memory (WM) load in driving situations.
Background: While driving, people develop a mental representation of the environment. Since errors in retrieving information from this representation can have fatal consequences, it is essential for road safety to investigate this process. During retrieval, people tend to fixate spatial positions of visually encoded information, even if it is no longer available at that location. Previous research has shown that this "looking-at-nothing" behavior can be used to trace retrieval processes.
Method: In a video-based laboratory experiment with 2 (WM) x 3 (SA level) within-subjects design, participants (N = 33) viewed a reduced screen and evaluated auditory statements relating to different SA levels on previously seen dynamic traffic scenarios while eye movements were recorded.
Results: When retrieving information, subjects more frequently fixated emptied spatial locations associated with the information relevant for the probed SA level. The retrieval of anticipations (SA level 3) in contrast to the other SA level information resulted in more frequent gaze transitions that corresponded to the spatial dynamics of future driving behavior.
Conclusion: The results support the idea that people build a visual-spatial mental image of a driving situation. Different gaze patterns when retrieving level-specific information indicate divergent retrieval processes.
Application: Potential applications include developing new methodologies to assess the mental representation and SA of drivers objectively.