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According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), driver distraction is the leading factor in most automobile crashes.  Nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involve some form of distraction within three seconds before the event.  Driving distracted was cited as claiming 3,166 lives in 2017 alone.  Unfortunately, the dangers associated with driving distracted, as well as distraction types, are woefully under appreciated.

Distractions while driving can manifest in three forms:

  •             Manual – taking one’s hands off the steering wheel
  •             Visual – taking one’s eyes off the road
  •             Cognitive – taking one’s mind off the task at hand

To most, the dangers associated with manual and visual distractions while driving are intuitive.  It makes sense that operating a vehicle without our hands on the steering wheel or our eyes on the road can place us at greater risk for causing a collision.  Cognitive distractions however, although equally dangerous, can be tricky to detect and appreciate.

Many of us believe that if we are talking on our cell phones while using hands-free technology that we are being responsible.  It seems logical that if our hands are at ten-and-two and our eyes on the road, that we are engaging in safe driving practice.  If you are one of the many people that hold this belief (as I once was) you would be alarmingly incorrect.  As reported in the National Safety Council’s White paper, Understanding the distracted brain – Why driving while using hands-free cell phones is risky behavior, drivers who participate in hands-free conversations while driving can “look at”, but not actually “see” up to 50% of the visual information pertaining to their environment.  This state of being is known as “inattention blindness”.  Essentially, our brains can only process a finite amount of external stimuli from our environment.

This helps us understand why we are such poor estimators of our ability to multitask.  While we may believe we are capable of simultaneously performing two cognitively demanding tasks (driving while holding a conversation through our hands-free devices) in reality our brains are rapidly switching back and forth from one task to the other, thereby creating the illusion that we are succeeding at doing both.  That rapid gap in attention while our brains are in the process of switching between tasks can cause us to fail to fully process either task.  This explains why while talking and driving we can fail to observe red lights or conclude upon reaching our destination, “wow, I can’t remember how I arrived here.”

It’s frightening how innocuous cognitive distractions can be, as it is virtually impossible for people to detect when they are mentally taking on too much causing them to experience inattention blindness.  However, armed with knowledge of this phenomenon, we can all make the choice to limit our focus to the task of driving and driving alone to safeguard against tragedy.

 

 

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