Taking a closer look at cognitive distraction

A new study seeks to look at cognitive distraction and how different tasks affect drivers mentally.

For the year 2015, the Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security reported that 1,067 traffic accidents were caused by driver distraction in Hamilton County. There are many things that can take the attention of drivers away from the road such as answering a phone call, taking their hand off of the steering wheel to smoke a cigarette, thinking about a family dispute or sending a text.

To understand more about how distractive behaviors affect drivers mentally, researchers for the American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety decided to run a series of experiments. The experiments were set up with the purpose of looking at the amount of mental workload that different tasks create and to put together a scale that shows where each task tested fits on a cognitive distraction level.

Ranking tasks

In order to rank tasks, researchers gave participants a set of highly complex problems to solve. Specially placed sensors on the participants' heads recorded the brain activity used for the task to help researchers determine a high level on the scale. To create the low end, the researchers measured participants' brain activity while they only focused on the sole task of driving.

Then, drivers were asked to engage in one additional task while driving. These tasks included the following:

  • Talking to a passenger
  • Using a hands-free cellphone
  • Listening to an audiobook
  • Speaking on a handheld cellphone

Drivers were also asked to use a speech-to-text technology. Researchers conducted the tests in a special car with sensors and cameras to record driver behavior while traveling on a course through a residential neighborhood, a laboratory and a driving simulator.

Tasks with the highest distractions

Surprisingly, the task with the highest mental workload rating was the speech-to-text system, even though it did not require drivers to look away from the road or take their hands off of the steering wheel. The hand-held cellphone came in at No. 2 and conversing with a passenger was No. 3.

The data showed that drivers were slower to react in a potentially risky situation, they scanned their driving environment less often than they did in the other tests and they actually missed visual cues because they were more focused mentally on the assigned task.

Concerns over hands-free systems

While researchers were only interested in gaining a better understanding of cognitive distraction, they voiced concern over the results involving the voice-text system. As many people in Chattanooga know, automakers have been installing such technology in new cars, pointing out that it improves driver safety. The researchers say that it is their hope the car industry will take these results into consideration and re-examine their decision to promote these systems to drivers.

Regardless of how safe drivers are, an accident can still occur, leaving them to deal with pain and suffering, lost wages and medical bills. Therefore, they may find it helpful to meet with an injury attorney.