Researchers examine cognitive distraction in recent study

A recent study looks at the effects that different tasks have on drivers mentally and established a rating scale.

The State of New Jersey Department of Law & Public Safety states that distracted driving led to the death of over 1,600 people during a 10-year period. It is important for people to understand that in order to be a safe driver, they need to avoid engaging in other behaviors. This includes eating, drinking, using cellphones, putting on makeup, paying attention to pets or children, and chatting with others in the car.

The state is one of the few in the country that prohibits people from using handheld cellphones while driving. However, a recent study shows that even using a hands-free device could pose risks to drivers.

Defining cognitive distraction

There are three types of distraction that drivers face. These are manual, visual and cognitive. The latter occurs when people are mentally distracted. For instance, if people are on their way to work and are thinking about the things that they need to accomplish that day, the part of their brain needed for driving could go into auto pilot. This could result in missing an exit or even getting into a collision with a car they didn't see.

The American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety wanted to understand more about cognitive distraction. Researchers set up a series of experiments that would give them the ability to establish a rating scale and then see how different behaviors affect safe driving.

The rating scale

To set the lowest point on the scale, the researchers first tested participants who did nothing except drive. For the highest point, the participants were asked to solve a series of highly complex problems that required a heavy mental workload. Drivers were then asked to engage in one additional task while driving such as talking to a passenger, using a voice-to-text system, listening to the radio and making a call on a handheld cellphone.

To gather the information, researchers outfitted the drivers with special sensors to record the brain's activity, cameras to capture their physical actions and sensors that measured pressure to brake and gas pedals, and steering wheel movements. The tests were conducted using instrumented cars in a residential neighborhood, a laboratory and a driving simulator.

The most distracting task

Researchers discovered that the task with the highest level of mental distraction was the voice-to-text system. This caused some concern, since new cars are now coming out with technology that is voice activated. Consumers can use this technology to respond to email, search for a local restaurant or business, make a phone call and find their favorite music. Drivers engaged in this task showed a delay in responding to potentially dangerous situations; they hit the brakes at a slower rate and even missed visual cues. They also failed to scan their driving environment as often as drivers with less distracting tasks.

Voice activated technology has been called a step forward in lowering drivers' accident risk since it allows drivers to keep their minds on the road and their hands on the wheel. However, the National Safety Council points out that focusing mentally on another task can cause something called inattention blindness. When this happens, people only see about half of what is really going on around them, and this can lead to a collision that leaves someone else seriously injured or worse.

It is important for drivers in New Jersey to operate their vehicles in a safe manner. When people are injured due to another's negligent actions, they may want to discuss their options for compensation with an attorney who handles such matters.