Whether it is wafting lavender or citrus scents to calm drivers and keep them awake, or vibrating seat belts to get them to slow down, smart cars in the future could help reduce road accidents.

Dr Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at England’s University of Oxford, said on Monday scientists were studying utilizing the senses such as smell and touch to develop features in cars to make driving safer.

“Touch is completely unused at the moment,” Spence told a science conference.

Drowsiness and distraction are leading causes of road traffic accidents and deaths, but Spence said vibrating seats, belts or foot pedals could alert drivers in a subtle way to a dangerous situation.

Although vibration is not used in current cars he said the Japanese automobile parts manufacturer Denso Corp (6902.T: Quote, Profile, Research) predicts that by 2020 all new cars will have vibration cues as a standard feature.

“We think the best thing in the future will be to combine vibration plus auditory warning signals,” said Spence.

So if the music is too loud the drivers will feel the vibration or if the vibrating seat belt isn’t worn, the auditory signal will capture their attention.

Front-to-rear collisions are among the most common type of road traffic accidents. Vibration from a part of the car that is already in contact with the driver could warn if the car ahead is slowing down or if the one behind is getting too close.

Spence, who is collaborating with an unidentified Japanese car manufacturer, is doing simulation studies to test the impact of vibration on drivers.

“We’re looking at about a 150 to 200 millisecond improvement in reaction time,” he said. That could translate into a 10-15 percent reduction in the most common type of accidents, he added.

He and his colleagues have also demonstrated that a peppermint odor could improve concentration and citrus may help to keep drowsy drivers alert.

“This research represents a whole new way of thinking about the design of warning signals for car drivers,” Spence added.

More here.