Cognitive Tasks While Driving May Not Distract Drivers

We are all aware of the danger associated with distracted driving, and many states are in the process of revising texting while driving laws to include other distracting behaviors that could lead to car crashes. But new research has shown that while there are many ways a driver can become distracted behind the wheel, cognitive tasks like hands-free phone calls and hands-free texting may not impair drivers as much as initially believed.

Distracted Driving Study

According to research conducted by a team at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), using hands-free technology to make calls and perform a variety of other tasks while still keeping eyes on the road and hands on the steering wheel does not increase the risk for being in a car accident. While “visual” and “manual” demands, such as texting, searching your contacts list, checking email, using GPS, or adjusting the music substantially increase the risk of a car crash, “The primarily cognitive secondary task of talking on a hands-free device does not appear to have any detrimental effects,” according to the Director of VTTI, Tom Dingus, who was also the principal investigator in the recent study.

The research team at VTTI looked to determine the extent to which crash risk could be affected by primarily mental behaviors, known as “cognitive distractions”—ones that occupy the mind but don’t require the driver to look away from the road ahead or remove his hands from the steering wheel. Having a conversation with a passenger in the car, singing to music in the car, making a hands-free call, or sending a hands-free text are all examples of cognitive distractions. The study showed no increase of car crash risk when drivers performed these cognitive tasks.

By analyzing video footage of thousands of drivers performing different tasks while driving and sensor data from the Second Strategic Highway Research Program, researchers were able to closely monitor the behavior of drivers and their reaction times. Drivers who used a hand-held device increased their crash risk by 2 to 3.5 times compared to “model” drivers, which were defined as being alert, attentive, and sober. The research, which is a first of its kind, showed clearly and consistently that activities requiring a driver to take his eyes off the road ahead, such as texting or dialing on a handheld phone, pose the greatest risk for car crashes.

The Epidemic of Distracted Driving

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2016 alone, over 3,400 people died due to distracted driving, and another 391,000 were seriously injured because of distracted driving. On any given day, during daylight hours, over 480,000 drivers are using their cell phones while driving, and that number is only expected to increase as more and more people, especially teenagers, depend on their cell phones for activities like paying bills, ordering food, communicating with their children’s schools, and making appointments. While 47 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban texting while driving, many states are in the process of revising their laws to include “distracted driving” as a primary offense.


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