Cognitive Distraction and the Hands-Free Device “Myth”

By Robert Sumwalt

Many of us believe we can talk on a hands-free phone and remain engaged in the driving task. The science shows, however, that we can’t “multitask” and drive safely.

Chatting on the phone is a form of cognitive distraction. When your mind is not focused on driving, but is focused on another task, such as talking, you have succumbed to the real problem of cognitive distraction. This kind of distraction can prove catastrophic, as many of the accidents we have investigated show.

Scene of Bridge Collapse, Mt. Vernon, WA
Cognitive distraction was a contributing factor in this accident, which caused a highway bridge collapse in WA state.

We saw such a crash in Mt. Vernon, Washington, when a bridge collapsed after the escort vehicle failed to warn the following truck-tractor of an impending clearance issue. The truck-tractor struck the steel beam trusses, sending the bridge and several vehicles into the Skagit River below. The driver of the escort vehicle had been using a hands-free cell phone, but was engaged in a conversation with her husband when the accident happened. Cognitive distraction was a contributing factor in this accident.

During our “Disconnect from Deadly Distraction” roundtable in March, this topic of cognitive distraction and “multitasking” produced some very thought-provoking dialogue.

“The bottom line is that eyes do not equal minds. You can be looking at one thing and thinking about something entirely different,” Dr. Stephen Casner of NASA’s Ames Research Center told the roundtable.

Dr. Charlie Klauer, a researcher at Virginia Tech University, said cognitive distraction “is real, it exists.” She explained that, in their naturalistic research and testing, “We see the performance detriments.”

This idea that, if we aren’t holding the phone in our hands, we are focused on driving is part of what I would call the “myth” of the hands-free device. Driving hands-free does not mean you are not distracted. Indeed, you still very much are.

“Catching up with mom on the phone is not part of the driving task,” David Teater, senior director at the National Safety Council, reminded us during the roundtable discussions.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has done research indicating that, even when drivers put down the cell phone, they don’t necessarily put their attention back on the road. “The finding was that, half the time we are doing anything, we are actually thinking about something else,” Dr. Adrian Lund, president of IIHS, said.

These are the facts from some of the greatest minds on this issue. Our roundtable has shown us that we still have a long way to go in understanding the unique features of the brain and its role in cell phone use and distracted driving.

Operating a vehicle in any mode of transportation is serious business. Doesn’t it deserve your undivided attention? Please, disconnect from your cell phone conversations, which can be a deadly distraction.

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