Your eyes may be on the road ahead, but if you’re on the phone, punching an address into the GPS or using a voice-activated app to send a text message, there’s a disconnect between your eyeballs and your brain.
“Cognitive distraction is something that drivers aren’t aware of, so they may go through a red light or a stop sign and be totally unaware they’ve missed it,” said David Strayer, whose research team at the University of Utah conducted a two-year study of the problem “They will tell you ‘I never saw it’ because their brain was focused elsewhere.”
The new study’s most surprising finding is that technology developed to enhance the safety of text messaging while driving isn’t very effective.
When compared with other distractions inside the car, the report said, “We found that interacting with the speech-to-text system was the most cognitively distracting. This clearly suggests that the adoption of voice-based systems in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety.”
The researchers did a series of controlled studies using driving simulators and on-road tests. For two years, groups of test subjects wore a Medusa-like cap of electrode wires to test how their brains reacted to the rapidly increasing number of distractions that sap the ability of drivers to focus on the road. Each distraction-induced change in brain waves was marked by the computer with a squiggly line on a graph.
Sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the study was issued Wednesday.
The data was generally consistent with other recent research that can be boiled down to a simple conclusion: the more complicated and absorbing a task, the greater the distraction from the road. The longer it takes to complete — a conversation, a message, setting a GPS destination — the worse it gets.