April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month. It’s time to increase the discussion and educate everyone on the dangers of distracted driving.
Cognitive Distractions: A Dangerous Activity
Distracted driving comprises one or more aspects: manual, visual, and/or cognitive. Cognitive distraction is the least obvious but potentially the most dangerous of the three. Combine driving and a cognitive distraction, such as using a cell phone, and you have a recipe for disaster.
The human brain is extremely complex and because of it, we can laugh, dream, work, play, love, and live. But when considering the brain’s capabilities, language skills are one of the most difficult tasks. It takes years to perfect that ability, and it is one of the first skills to fail as our brain ages. Talking and listening use a lot of our brain, although we don’t recognize that since overtime it becomes a routine activity. Talking on a cell phone while hands-free or not makes no difference. Both are risky when driving because the brain is engaged in a task that is not related to driving.
The Myth of Multi-Tasking
In today’s society, there is a push to be able to “multi-task.” Many people claim they can do it effectively. But being able to multi-task is a myth. The human brain cannot perform more than one task at a time, nor can it be trained to multi-task. Studies of fighter pilots attempting to train their brain to multi-task have demonstrated the futility of it.
A brain does not multi-task, it switches tasks. Instead of giving full performance to two tasks, it choses which task the person has “said” is more important, and then focuses on that one. If necessary, the brain will switch back to another task when something happens. You can tell when the person you are speaking to on the other end of the phone is not fully engaged in the call—you get short answers, or “uh-huh” or “mmmm.” As soon as you point out to the person that he or she is not listening, the brain changes the focus, you get their full attention, and if that person is driving, it is the attention to driving that suffers.
Cell Phone Myths
The research on cognitive distractions and using a cell phone is clear: it creates a risk. Thus, when driving a motor vehicle, you should never use a cell phone. A number of traffic safety organizations have called for an outright ban on this activity. Those opposed to a ban raise a variety of claims, including:
- A ban would lead to decreased business productivity.
- There is a lack of public support for a ban.
- Law Enforcement would not be able to enforce such a law.
Each of these beliefs has been shown through research and surveys to be additional myths. They are false. Fortune 500 companies that have imposed cell phone bans have seen no reduction in productivity, but they have seen a decrease in crashes and property damage. Surveys have shown that over two-thirds of the public supports a full cell phone ban, and law enforcement agencies have been able find ways to successfully enforce current laws regarding cell phone limitations, and they will continue to do so with a complete ban.
Time to Be Proactive
With the phone next to us while driving, the temptation to use it is huge. The easiest way to avoid the temptation is not to put yourself in the situation to start with. When you get in the car, turn the phone off and put it in the trunk, in the glove box, in a purse or backpack and put those out of reach. No phone call or text is worth the additional risk. Put the phone away and focus on driving.
What are you going to do to be a safer driver and avoid distracted driving? Let me know in the comments below.
Want to learn more about the myth of multi-tasking? Check out my interview with Dr. Paul Atchley, Professor, Department of Psychology, Kansas University, on my Highway to Safety podcast. He discusses the content above, and goes into further detail about cognitive distractions. Click here.