Distracted Driving. Why The Devices That Are Supposed to Make us Safer, Do Just the Opposite

      Jim Morrison and The Doors sang “Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel.” Sorry, that’s not enough. In order to reduce your risk of being one of the 33,000 people a year killed in car crashes in America, you also want to keep your MIND on the road, and your mouth shut. And don’t think all those hands-free communication tools in your car, like a voice-activated phone or email systems, make you safer. They do just the opposite.


      Research has established that even if your eyes are on the road and your hands are on the wheel, talking on a cell phone while you drive is dangerous, whether you’re holding it or not. The conversation is a cognitive distraction, no matter what kind of phone you’re using. But a recent study by David Strayer and his team at the University of Utah goes further. It turns out that engaging with voice-activated messaging systems in new cars, which allow you to make the hands-free calls or texts that are supposedly safer, create the most distraction and danger of all.

            Strayer et. al. put test subjects in either a lab, a driving simulator, or in an actual car on the open road (specially equipped to monitor driver attention) and tested six different kinds of driver distraction;

1. listening to the radio

2. listening to a book on tape

3. talking with a passenger in the front seat

4. talking on a hand-held cell phone

5. talking on a hand-free cell phone

6. interacting with a speech recognition email or text system

            To see how distracted the drivers were, the study tracked;

  --  Neural activity in parts of the brain needed for driving. (Test subjects wore a cap with electrodes that monitored brain activity.)

  --  Reaction time to a signal to hit the brakes, or to stimuli in the subject’s peripheral vision.

  --  How many times the test drivers totally missed stimuli in their peripheral vision (the equivalent of the kid running out from the side of the road chasing a ball).

This chart from the AAA Foundation, which funded the research, summarizes the ominous findings.

            The first column is a single task, just driving, no distractions. It’s there to set a baseline. The column on the far right labeled OSPAN Task is a mental challenge designed to be really hard, a combination of complicated math and memorization at the same time. It’s on the other end to demonstrate what being REALLY distracted looks like.

     In between are some common things we do while we drive, and they all impair our ability to drive safely. Listening to the radio isn’t so bad. Conversation, with a fellow passenger, or on a cell phone – hand-held or hands free - distracts us more. (Interestingly, all three forms of conversation distract us about the same). Using a speech-to-text system to send or receive emails or messages, which ostensibly makes us less distracted, is even worse.

     But the cognitive distraction is only one part of the problem. The other part is the fact that using a hands-free phone, or a voice-activated email or text system, makes us feel safer, even though we aren’t. Research on the psychology of risk perception by Paul Slovic and many others has found that the more we feel we have control, the less afraid we are. Doing something, in this case using a voice activated calling or messaging system while we drive, gives us a sense of control. We feel safer. We relax, and we drive less cautiously. Even though what we’re doing to give ourselves more control, means we have less.

     Dumb, huh? Yet this is a direct product of our own response to risk. We see all those lousy distracted drivers weaving all over the road gabbing away on their phones. We’ve been threatened by their selfishness…maybe even been hurt by it. So we tell our lawmakers to protect us. Only, we don’t want them to ban OUR phone…just the one in the hands of those jerks who impose their risk on us. So lawmakers find a compromise that feels right. Eleven states have banned driving while using a hand-held cell phone, even though a study of four states that imposed such laws found that after the law took effect the number of insurance claims for accidents either stayed the same or went UP, for the reasons described above.

            Or we demand that vehicle manufacturers equip their cars and trucks with the high tech communication tools we want, in part to help us feel safer, the hidden effect of which is to raise our risk, and the danger for everyone else out on the roads.

            Crazy, huh? Irrational, right? Dangerous? Absolutely. Yet this is how human risk perception works. It’s a system of facts and feelings, where the feelings usually matter more than the facts and gut reaction easily overpowers reason, leading us to do things that feel right, but raise our risk. It’s the phenomenon I call the Risk Perception Gap, and there can be no clearer example than the counter-productive ways society is trying to cope with the risk of distracted driving.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

People who engage in fat-shaming tend to score high in this personality trait

A new study explores how certain personality traits affect individuals' attitudes on obesity in others.

Pixabay
Mind & Brain
  • The study compared personality traits and obesity views among more than 3,000 mothers.
  • The results showed that the personality traits neuroticism and extraversion are linked to more negative views and behaviors related to obesity.
  • People who scored high in conscientiousness are more likely to experience "fat phobia.
Keep reading Show less

4 anti-scientific beliefs and their damaging consequences

The rise of anti-scientific thinking and conspiracy is a concerning trend.

Moon Landing Apollo
popular
  • Fifty years later after one of the greatest achievements of mankind, there's a growing number of moon landing deniers. They are part of a larger trend of anti-scientific thinking.
  • Climate change, anti-vaccination and other assorted conspiratorial mindsets are a detriment and show a tangible impediment to fostering real progress or societal change.
  • All of these separate anti-scientific beliefs share a troubling root of intellectual dishonesty and ignorance.
Keep reading Show less

Reigning in brutality - how one man's outrage led to the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions

The history of the Geneva Conventions tells us how the international community draws the line on brutality.

Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino. Painting by Adolphe Yvon. 1861.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Henry Dunant's work led to the Red Cross and conventions on treating prisoners humanely.
  • Four Geneva Conventions defined the rules for prisoners of war, torture, naval and medical personnel and more.
  • Amendments to the agreements reflect the modern world but have not been ratified by all countries.
Keep reading Show less