The Psychology of Distracted Driving

shutterstock_201291197The three major types of driving distractions include visual distractions, manual distractions, and cognitive distractions.  Visual distractions occur when a driver looks away from the road, manual distractions take a driver’s hands off of the wheel, and cognitive distractions occur anytime a driver’s mind wanders to a topic other than driving.

The Importance of Understanding Distracted Driving

Some drivers have attempted to curb these dangers by using hands-free devices, allowing their hands and eyes to remain on the road.  Many state laws and many employer policies also allow hands-free cell phone use, while car manufacturers are increasingly offering hands-free calling options. However, hands-free phones do not curb cognitive distractions at all.  Cognitive distractions remain extremely dangerous, as the brain’s ability to process movement of visual images decreases by as much as 37% when listening to a telephone conversation.  [1]  The brain cannot truly “multitask,” but rather alternates attention between competing tasks.  [2]  When a person switches focus from one activity to another, the result is a slower reaction time. [2]

Accordingly, a driver talking on a cell phone risks missing up to half of the conditions of their driving environment.  In fact, drivers talking on cell phones have reaction times than drivers with 0.08% blood alcohol content levels.  Interestingly, having a conversation with another person in the car does not seem to have the same effect.  This is because a second set of eyes on the road helps the driver to see conditions he might otherwise have missed, and others in the car tend to adjust the conversation when driving conditions become challenging.  Unfortunately, there is no truly safe way to talk on the telephone while driving.  It is just as important to avoid cognitive distractions as it is to avoid visual and manual distractions.  The best way to keep your mind on the road is to hang up and drive.

[1] http://www.nsc.org/DistractedDrivingDocuments/The-Great-Multitasking-Lie-print.pdf

[2] http://www.nsc.org/DistractedDrivingDocuments/Cognitive-Distraction-White-Paper.pdf