Recent news that teen driving deaths are up is a serious cause for alarm. At a time when motor vehicles are safer than ever and fatalities have decreased, why should teen deaths be increasing? Anyone familiar with teens has to wonder if their cell phones, iPods and other devices are to blame.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project (pewinternet.org), 75% of teens (ages 12-17) own cell phones, as do 87% of American adults. In a nation with over 322 million wireless subscribers (CTIA.org), it is no wonder that distracted driving is a problem. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that 11% of all drivers at any given time are using cell phones, while the National Safety Council (NSC) estimated that more than 25% of motor vehicle crashes involved cell phone use at the time of the crash.
The NSC’s 2010 white paper called “Understanding the Distracted Brain: Why driving while using hands-free cell phones is risky behavior” (available at www.KidsAgainstDistractedDriving.com) should be required reading for all middle- and high school students. The NSC compiled over 30 research studies and reports by scientists around the world using a variety of research methods, all comparing driver performance with handheld and hands-free phones. All of these studies showed that hands-free phones offered no safety benefit when driving. The cognitive distraction caused by paying attention to conversation – everything from listening and responding to the voice on the other end of the phone– contributes to numerous driving impairments.
Hands-free devices only reduce two risks relating to distracted driving: visual (looking away from the road) and manual (removing your hands from the steering wheel). But hands-free devices do not eliminate the cognitive distraction that occurs when using a cell phone. Taking your mind off the road is just as dangerous as taking your eyes off the road.
Many drivers do not realize that our brains have a ca¬pacity limit. All of the tasks needed for driving—cognitive, visual, auditory, and manual—are controlled by the brain. Researchers using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) are able to see how the brain actually reacts to specific tasks and problems. These studies have shown that the same area of the brain used for conversation is also used for navigation and spatial processing needed for driving. In fact, listening and language comprehension actually draws cognitive resources away from driving.
Research shows there is no such thing as “multi-tasking.” The human brain does not perform multiple tasks at the same time, but rather in sequence, switching from one task to another. Studies show that in addition to “attention switching,” the brain engages in a constant process to deal with the information it continually receives. The brain must:
1. Select the information it will attend to;
2. Process the information;
3. Encode the information (the stage that creates memory); and
4. Store the information.
Different areas of the brain and multiple neural pathways are engaged in these processes, depending on the type of information being received by the brain. Then, the brain must go through two more cognitive functions before it can act on saved information. It must:
5. Retrieve stored information; and
6. Execute (act) on the information.
All of these steps take time and all are affected when the brain becomes overloaded with new information, although people do not realize these processes are going on within their head. The brain essentially screens out information in order to handle distraction overload. But people cannot control the information that gets processed by their brains and what information gets filtered out.
Using a phone negatively affects one’s driving ability because in addition to switching between tasks, the brain also alternates focus and attention. Driving and using a phone are both complex cognitive tasks, and when people try to do both together, the brain must shift its focus, which results in some important information being cast aside and going unprocessed by the brain. This process can result in “inattention blindness” and longer reaction time, both of which negatively affect driving performance.
One of the most shocking facets of distracted driving is so-called inattention blindness. Research shows that drivers using cell phones look at, but fail to see, up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment. In other words, distracted drivers are looking out the windshield, but do not process everything in the environment needed to keep a proper lookout, identify potential hazards, and respond effectively to unexpected events. The danger of inattention blindness is self-evident: when a driver fails to appreciate things in the roadway environment, or notices them too late, it is impossible for the driver to safely respond in order to avoid a crash.
According to the NSC, driving while talking on cell phones, either handheld or hands-free, is four times more likely to result in a crash with injuries and property damage. The research supporting this conclusion comes from studies using various research designs and conducted in different cultures and driving environments, all with similar results.
We cannot allow teen deaths to continue to increase. A survey by Seventeen magazine and AAA found that "Nearly nine in 10 teenage drivers have engaged in distracted-driving behaviors such as texting or talking on a cell phone although most of them know that their actions increase their risk of crashing." Still, distracted driving is not just a teen problem. A study by the Pew Research Center showed that "adults text as often while driving as teenagers and are actually more likely than teens to talk on the phone when behind the wheel." Distracted driving is everyone’s problem. Make a pledge to be part of the solution.