What is cognitive distraction?

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Nov 29 2012 / By DriveitHOME

What is cognitive distraction?

As new drivers gain experience behind the wheel, parents should discuss the importance of eliminating distractions, especially the use of cell phones – handheld and hands-free. This is one behavior that is dangerous regardless of the amount or type of driving experience one has had.

Most drivers understand the dangers of texting while driving and that using a handheld device to talk on the phone also is risky. But many drivers still falsely believe talking on a hands-free device is safe because their hands are on the wheel. All a hands-free device does is puts another hand on the steering wheel. We’ve been driving stick shift vehicles for decades. The issue isn’t about where the hands are; it’s about where the mind is.

The cell phone conversation – regardless of whether a driver uses a hands-free device – is cognitively distracting, and parents must discuss cognitive distraction with their teens, who use cell phones more often than drivers of any other age group.

Parents should make it a family rule that no one is to use a cell phone while driving. Riding with a cell phone distracted driver also should be discouraged. The following information can help parents explain cognitive distraction to their teens.

Multitasking is a myth

Driving and engaging in a cell phone conversation are two tasks that require significant brain power. Contrary to popular belief, the human brain cannot multitask. The brain rapidly switches between two tasks. The switching occurs without our being aware of it, so there is no perceived danger. However, research shows this switching causes cell phone distracted drivers to miss up to 50 percent of their driving environment.

Decreased brain activity

A study done by Carnegie Mellon University showed a decrease in brain activity in drivers using cell phones. The parietal lobe activation, which is associated with processing moving visual images while driving, decreases by as much as 37 percent with sentence listening.

Delayed reaction

Cell phone use substantially decreases a driver’s reaction time. One driving simulator study conducted by the University of Utah found that drivers using cell phones had slower reaction times than drivers with a .08 blood alcohol content, the legal intoxication limit. Braking time also was delayed for drivers using cell phones – handheld or hands-free. Because teens are inexperienced drivers, their reaction times already are slower than that of drivers with more experience. This underscores the need for teens to refrain from using cell phones while driving.

What about conversations with passengers?

A common myth is talking on a cell phone while driving is not different than talking to a passenger. But the disembodied voice contributes to numerous driving impairments. When a driver is talking on a cell phone, he or she must think about the other person’s reactions because the driver cannot see the person with whom he or she is talking. This further contributes to the cognitive distraction the driver is experiencing.

A teen passenger is a dangerous distraction for a newly-licensed teen driver. In fact, risk increases substantially with each additional passenger.

An adult passenger in an adult-driven vehicle is a safety benefit, as he or she is an extra set of eyes on the road and will alert the driver to dangerous changes in the driving environment.

Put an end to cell phone distracted driving

There is no safe way to simultaneously drive and use a cell phone. Recognizing this and the need to keep teen drivers safe, 32 states have passed cell phone bans for teen drivers. But cell phone bans do not need to be a state law in order to be enforced at home. Our youngest and most vulnerable drivers do not need to increase their already high crash risk by engaging in such dangerous behavior, and parents can help by implementing a cell phone ban and helping their teens understand why they are doing so.

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