Distracted driving is any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving. All distractions endanger driver, passenger and bystander safety. These types of distractions include:
Using a cell phone or smartphone
Eating and drinking
Talking to passengers
Reading, including maps
Using a navigation system
Watching a video
Adjusting a radio, CD player, or MP3 player
The Myth of “Multi-Tasking”
Many people believe they are great at “multi-tasking.” They are constantly doing several things at once – driving down the road while simultaneously talking on their phone while putting on their make-up. People often think they are effectively accomplishing multiple tasks at the same time. And yes, they may complete a phone conversation while they drive and arrive at their destination without incident, their make-up flawless. However, because we know how the human brain works we know for a fact that multi-tasking 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. While brains can juggle tasks very rapidly, which leads us to falsely believe that 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. This is called “attention switching.”
We can safely walk while chewing gum because one of those tasks – chewing gum – is not a cognitively demanding task. When chewing gum and walking, people still are able to visually scan the environment for potential hazards. However, people do not perform as well when trying to perform two attention-demanding tasks at the same time. When people attempt to perform two cognitively complex tasks such as driving and talking on a phone, the brain is “attention switching.” As a result people develop “inattention blindness” – important information falls out of view and is not processed by the brain. For example, drivers may not see a red light. Because this is a process people are not aware of, it’s virtually impossible for people to realize they are mentally taking on too much.
Hands-Free Devices Do Not Eliminate Cognitive Distraction
Hands-free devices (such as Bluetooth) are often seen as a safe way to use the telephone while driving because they help eliminate two obvious risks – visual (looking away from the road while dialing) and manual (removing your hands from the steering wheel). However, as discussed above, a third type of distraction occurs when using cell phones while driving – cognitive (taking your mind off the road).
Most people can recognize when they are visually or mechanically distracted and seek to disengage from these activities as quickly as possible. However, people typically do not realize when they are cognitively distracted, such as taking part in a phone conversation. This likely explains why researchers have not been able to find a safety benefit to hands-free phone conversations. The National Safety Council has compiled more than 30 research studies and reports by scientists around the world that used a variety of research methods, to compare driver performance with handheld and hands-free phones. All of these studies show hands-free phones offer no safety benefit when driving. The cognitive distraction from paying attention to conversation – from listening and responding to a disembodied voice – occurs on both handheld and hands-free phones and contributes to extremely dangerous driving impairments.
Hands-free devices offer no safety benefit when driving because hands-free devices do not eliminate cognitive distraction.