Understanding the effects of cognitive distraction on driving behaviors

Distracted driving continues to make the headlines due to fatal accidents, and increased legislation in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the United States attempts to deal with the problem. However, most of the attention goes to the dangers of texting or talking on a cellphone while behind the wheel. Taking the eyes off the road and the hands off the wheel increase the risk of a devastating motor vehicle accident, but according to the National Safety Council, many people discount the hazards of using speech-activated technology.

Study indicates high distraction levels

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has been doing research to determine how safe these information systems are. The most recently reported study is the third in a series that examined how drivers interacted with specific systems currently available in vehicles.

Participants included motorists between the ages of 21 and 70, and each person was given a week to practice tasks before completing the test. Some systems were less complicated to interact with, and these had a low distraction level. Even so, results indicated that in most cases, the drivers were more distracted while using voice commands than when they talked on a cellphone. Not only that, for nearly half a minute after the interaction, the cognitive distraction continued to affect some motorists' driving skills.

The age of the driver and the complexity of the system had significant impact on the outcomes. People in the 54 to 70 age group reported more trouble using the systems, and their distraction levels were higher.

The myth of multitasking

The NSC explains that cognitive distraction using these devices is so significant because, rather than performing tasks simultaneously, the brain transfers focus between them, often very rapidly. This creates the illusion of multitasking, an ability which people rely on for safety while they are interacting with a hands-free device behind the wheel. However, the more tasks that are vying for attention, the less effective a person will be at reacting to a sudden traffic situation or other circumstance that requires immediate and complete focus.

Technology precedes safety

The American Automobile Association reports that the effects of cognitive driver distraction have been subject to ongoing research. At the same time, new in-vehicle hands-free communication systems continue to flood the marketplace. These include the ability to perform tasks such as the following:

  • Adjust climate controls
  • Select music
  • Dial phone numbers with voice commands
  • Enter GPS destinations

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends guidelines to vehicle manufacturers as a way to promote technology that is less distracting, but these are not mandatory.

The already heavy reliance on voice technology to improve vehicle safety may be increasing the risks on the nation's roadways. Those who are injured in an accident involving a distracted driver may benefit from the advice of a Pittsburgh personal injury attorney when attempting to hold the responsible driver liable for the damages.

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