Study is first to focus on cognitive distraction

A new study creates a measuring scale to examine the effects of cognitive distraction in drivers.

Every day people in Morristown see motorists who are distracted. Instead of putting their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, these negligent drivers are checking their phones, eating, putting on makeup and playing with the dials on their dash.

Driver distraction was a factor in more than 16,500 traffic crashes within the state of Tennessee in 2015, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security. Shelby County held the No. 1 spot with 4,588 collisions, followed by Davidson County with 2,062.

Examining cognitive distraction states that there are three types of distracted driving. These are visual, manual and cognitive. Most statistics that are available concern the first two types. For instance, one study shows that a driver’s accident risk increases by three times when the driver is involved in visual-manual subtasks. Another report shows that over the past five years, electronic devices such as cellphones are used at any time during the day by 660,000 American drivers.

Realizing that most reports focus more on manual and visual distraction, the American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety decided that further attention needed to be given to cognitive distraction. As a result, researchers conducted a series of tests involving 38 participants from a university to examine how distracted behaviors affect drivers mentally.

Creating a rating scale

To accurately rate the different levels of distraction, researchers asked the participants to try to solve highly complex tasks that required a great deal of mental workload. Then the drivers were measured while only engaged in the sole task of driving to create the beginning point of the scale. The participants were outfitted with special sensors and cameras, and were tested in three environments – a residential neighborhood, a driving simulator and a laboratory.

The drivers were asked to engage in different tasks during these tests. The tasks included the following:

  • Listening to an audio book
  • Talking to a passenger
  • Using a cellphone
  • Using a hands-free cellphone
  • Using a speech-to-text system
  • Listening to a radio

As the drivers performed each task while driving, their brain activity was measured as well as reaction times and their ability to detect potential issues. The results showed that the most distracting tasks were talking on a handheld cellphone, speaking with a passenger, using the speech-to-text system and operating a hands-free cellphone. Drivers performing these tasks scanned their driving environment less frequently, hit their brakes at a slower speed and missed visual cues to a potential danger.

Further questions over hands-free technology

The study raises questions over the increasing use of technology in new automobiles. While manufacturers market these systems as safer to use, researchers question those claims. If the study results are accurate, it could mean that drivers who are using these voice systems in their vehicles are putting themselves and others around them unnecessarily at risk because they are more focused on what the system is doing then paying attention to the road.

Dealing with the aftermath of a car accident can be traumatic and overwhelming. People in Tennessee may find it helpful to meet with an injury attorney to understand what their rights are and what compensation they may be legally entitled to.