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Drivers lose their ability to control a vehicle when distracted

By on May 1, 2014

Years ago, drivers had a handful of distractions when they were behind the wheel. They included talking to passengers, eating and drinking, grooming, reading a map, using a CB and adjusting a radio. Now, mobile phones, texting, programming navigation systems, checking onboard computers, watching videos and adjusting the CD or MP3 player are also on the list.

Many drivers figure they can manage these small distractions. But think about it: While using a mobile device behind the wheel, have you ever passed your exit, or slammed on the brakes because the vehicle in front of you unexpectedly slowed down? Have you run a stop sign or red light during an intense phone conversation?

The human brain has impressive processing power that allows us to perceive what is happening around us, focus on what we are doing and respond to change, but that power has limits, according to behavioral researchers at Vanderbilt University.  Studies show that attempting more than one task interferes with our ability to process information, even for performing basic actions we consider second nature. Try to juggle too many thoughts and actions at once and your brain gets overloaded to the point of inefficiency. Researchers say a condition called inattention blindness may result, when you fail to perceive even major things going on right in front of your eyes. When it comes right down to it, multitasking means that you’re just doing a lot of things poorly.

Keep your mind on the road

When one of those tasks involves controlling a multi-ton vehicle moving at a fast pace alongside other moving vehicles, there’s reason for concern. Every day in the U.S., more than nine people are killed and more than 1,060 people are injured in crashes that involve a distracted driver, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

A U.S. DOT study found that lapses in driver attention contribute to up to 90 percent of traffic crashes. Research conducted by the NHTSA and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute showed that 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involve some form of driver distraction within three seconds of the incident.

We tend to think of a driver taking their eyes off the road or their hands off the wheel when discussing distraction. But research shows that taking your mind off of driving is often just as dangerous.

Hands-free is not risk-free

Many drivers have switched to hands-free devices as a safety measure, but that also presents problems. A recent study by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety measured brain activity and assessed indicators of driving performance. This research examined the mind of the driver and the mental distractions caused by a variety of tasks that may be performed behind the wheel.

The findings showed that certain activities — such as talking on a hands-free cellphone or interacting with a speech-to-text email system — place a high cognitive burden on drivers, reducing the available mental resources that should be dedicated to driving. The researchers found that reaction time slows and brain function is compromised as mental workload and distractions increase. Drivers check the road less and miss cues that can result in not seeing things right in front of them, such as stop signs and pedestrians.

By demonstrating that mentally distracted drivers miss visual cues, have slower reaction times and even exhibit a sort of tunnel vision, the study provides some of the strongest evidence yet that hands-free doesn’t mean risk-free.

It is my contention that because driving becomes “normal” to us, we forget just how complex a task it is. Moreover, we don’t realize that we can only pay attention to so many things at the same time.

I suggest that unless there is an emergency, we pull over to make a phone call, text, check emails, read the navigation system and so on. Crazy, you say? It really wasn’t all that long ago that we had to stop to make a phone call. The challenge then was to find a pay phone.

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