Brain drain: why talking on your cell phone while driving is risky
We all know cell phones and driving are a deadly combination, but no matter how safe we choose to be, we’ve all seen other drivers speeding down busy roads while chatting on their phones. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 9 percent of all drivers at any given time are using their cell phones, and more than two-thirds of respondents in a survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported talking on their cell phones while driving during the previous 30 days. This adds up to approximately 660,000 drivers using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010. Engaging in visual-manual subtasks (such as reaching for a phone or dialing) associated with the use of phones increased the risk of getting into a crash by three times. In fact, annually 21 percent of all crashes, or 1.2 million crashes, involved talking on cell phones.
Many drivers believe that talking on a cell phone while driving is no big deal because they believe they can effectively multitask. However, researchers report that multitasking is a myth. Human brains do not perform two tasks at the same time. Instead, the brain handles tasks sequentially, switching between one task and another. Although brains can juggle tasks very rapidly, which leads us to erroneously believe we are doing two tasks at the same time, in reality, the brain is switching attention between tasks – performing only one task at a time. Even worse is that there is a measurable time when the brain is switching its attention and focus from one task to another. Even small amounts of time spent switching can lead to significant risks from delayed reaction and braking time. A fraction of-a-second delay would make a car travel several additional car lengths, so when a driver needs to react immediately, there is no margin for error.
“Using your phone while driving may seem safe, but it roughly quadruples your risk of being in a crash according to previous research,” says Jake Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety advocacy and research. “None of us is immune from the dangers of distracted driving. The best advice is to hang up and drive.”
Drivers using cell phones look but fail to see up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment, even though they may think that having their eyes on the road is enough to keep them and their fellow motorists safe. This is what researchers call “inattention blindness”, and it’s similar to tunnel vision. Drivers are looking out the windshield, but they do not process everything in the roadway environment that they must know to effectively monitor their surroundings, seek and identify potential hazards, and respond to unexpected situations.
“The lasting effects of mental distraction pose a hidden and pervasive danger that would likely come as a surprise to most drivers,” says Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “The results indicate that motorists could miss stop signs, pedestrians and other vehicles while the mind is readjusting to the task of driving.”
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