Are You Driven to Distraction?

Are you completely sure of who is controlling your vehicle at all times?  Believe it or not, we are getting lazier and lazier when it comes to driving – through no fault of our own.  Semi-autonomous driving (which is a posh way of saying assisted driving) is here to stay.  In fact, safety features are now becoming more of an attraction to customers when purchasing cars than speed and size of engine.

Gadgets are no longer limited to top of the range vehicles or ‘Bond Cars’.  According to Auto Pacific, 90% of customers see safety as a primary factor when choosing a vehicle.  In 2013 this was 82%.  Blind spot information systems and reverse assisted parking rank now among the top 15 most requested features.  Safety has always been important to motorists, but as we’ve seen more advanced safety features arrive as standard within our vehicles, we have also seen an increase in the percentage of consumers who rate safety features of high importance when shopping for a new vehicle.

However, the first and second most sought after features remain tied directly to a motorist’s derrière, namely a power driver’s seat and heated front seats. Most amenities motorists say they’re seeking in their next vehicles tend to be either practical, such as easy-to-clean upholstery, or luxury-oriented like leather seats and a heated steering wheel.

Most consumers however are still yet to feel comfortable with the concept of a fully self-driving car.  They feel that autonomous driving just isn’t here yet and of course they are right (find out more here).   There’s no doubt however, that when the niggles are resolved within self-driving cars they are going to re-structure the planet as we know it.  If you think about it, the self-driving car is a much more realistic expectation of the future than a flying car.

The Biggest Distraction

The biggest menace currently for distracting any driver is the mobile phone.  Unlike self-driving cars the law has caught up on this one.   Since last year if you are caught using your mobile phone whilst driving in any capacity, it is immediately 6 points on your license – this includes if it is in a hands-free holder.  Apple have even built in a notification warning if are driving and asks you to confirm whether you are driving when opening / unlocking the phone when moving at speed.  If you think about it, this will have saved lives already.  You can use hands-free phones – but, as long as you don’t press any buttons (including sat navs) whilst driving.  If the police think you’re distracted and not in control of your vehicle you could still get stopped and penalised.

Studies all over the world have been conducted around the world and conclude that use of mobile phones while driving is dangerous and pervasive.  Texting whilst driving also still appears to be a significant problem, especially among younger drivers Studies conducted in both simulators and in the real world have shown that drivers on a mobile phone reduce their visual scanning of the road ahead, are more likely to weave within their lane on bends and are slower to respond to hazards.

Holding your phone whilst driving is a major problem, because not only is your eye not focusing on the road, but having one hand off the steering wheel means it’s harder to respond to corners and last-minute corrections.

There is another problem which is highlighted in studies.  The act of conversation itself is a distraction. If the level of driving difficulty grows (placing greater demand  on the driver’s concentration), this will, in turn, escalate their need for increased ‘cognitive processing’.  The complexity on the cognitive processing required at that time to handle a conversation, also requires depth of thought which means the brain is not fully focused on the task at hand.  It means that two modes of thoughts are fighting for resources.  If we factor in the conversation higher than the need for concentration on the road, then it’s likely a crash will happen.  We cannot attend to things all at the same time.  We are best placed to deal with one task at a time, not multi-task which we are asked by design to do time and time again whilst driving.

A study, undertaken by Marcel Just at Carnegie Mellon University had participants drive along a winding road in a simulator, controlled via a mouse, while lying in an MRI scanner to record brain activity.  In one test participants had to engage in a sentence comprehension task while driving (which is like engaging in a mobile phone conversation). Compared to the control trial, steering behaviour in this “dual-task” condition was much worse, with more collisions against the road edges.

What the Brain is Doing

In the controlled condition, there was a lot of activity in the parietal lobe of the brain, considered to be vital for spatial processing. During the dual task however, activation became apparent in the temporal lobes, reflecting the processing of the auditory messages. This increase in temporal-lobe activation corresponded with a significant decrease in parietal-lobe activation, clearly suggesting that the auditory task was commandeering attention, and diverting it away from the safety-critical driving task.

What About Hands Free?

Modern cars are built with hands free solutions, so what’s the problem?  Well, you could say holding a conversation on the phone is no different to conversing with a passenger in the car with you.  Interestingly though, evidence suggests otherwise.  The big difference between in-car and mobile phone conversations is that the passenger can see what the driver sees, it’s also another set of eyes.  They are also present and, in the moment, travelling with you.  For example, if you are bringing the car onto a motorway coming down a slip way and feed into traffic, the passenger will likely remain quiet whilst you perform the manoeuvre.  The person on the phone however has no way of knowing your current actions.  They have no shared view.

Imagine holding a conversation knowing this whilst you factor in fiddling with the radio or a setting in your car.  You can see how the brain is being literally driven to distraction, almost through no fault of our own.  I wonder how many of us get in the car and arrive at work wondering how we got there?  Likely because we were listening to our favourite radio station or tracks via our mobile.

Designers of mobile phones and mobile phone software deliberately design them to be addictive and to grab our attention.  Phones are built to distract us and whilst car companies have now encompassed this into their designs to reduce the need to pick them up with hand’s free features, perhaps we need to ask ourselves, do we really need to be this distracted whilst driving?  Perhaps we should just be more focused on the important task at hand – simply driving, safely.

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