April Is Distracted Driving Awareness Month: Driver Distraction Can Be Deadly


Monday, April 4, 2021

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Throughout the month, Marc Gentzler, professor, psychology, will share his expertise on driver safety discovered through years of research. Marc, a professor at Valencia since 2013, obtained his doctoral degree in human factors psychology in 2014 from the University of Central Florida, with a focus on the neuroscientific aspects involved in driving. His dissertation was titled “Driving performance adaptation through practice with and without distracters in a simulated environment.” He has 14 peer-reviewed publications, 15 conference presentations and 14 conference poster presentations. Further, Marc reviews papers in his field and has previously done consulting analyzing the perceptual and cognitive factors involved in real car accident cases.  

By Marc Gentzler, Professor Psychology

Driving is such a commonplace activity that we think of it as an easy, intuitive task. “Any idiot can drive,” as some say. But the real question is how well we drive. It might surprise you, but driving is the most complex activity that most of us do on a regular basis. This article is the first in a series I will write on driving safety, with the goal to make you a safer driver. This first topic covers driving distraction.

Common sense tells us that driving while distracted is a bad idea because we can’t multitask well. But driving itself is multitasking. We are doing and processing many things at once, even if we are not aware of it. Therefore, adding unnecessary distracters to driving is just adding to the pile so to speak.

Anyone could tell you that it’s dangerous to text and drive. Having your eyes off the road, even for a little bit, can be deadly. For instance, let’s say you are driving on the highway at 70 mph (speed limit on several highways in Orlando), which is about 103 feet per second. Assume that you look away for just 2 seconds. That means that you have traveled over 200 feet. With 3 seconds of eyes off the road, you would have covered over an entire football field (over 100 yards).

The issue with texting and driving seems obvious. Surveys have shown that people agree about the dangers of texting and driving. Nevertheless, many still admit to doing it. From a psychological perspective, there are several possible reasons for this: 1. People do it all the time and have never themselves gotten into an accident, so what are the odds of getting into an accident the next time? 2. We see others doing it, so why can’t we do it too? And 3. We can get anxious if we don’t check our phone, especially if we hear a chime indicating we have received some type of message. We don’t want to be rude by not getting back to that person right away.

Some think they are experts at texting and driving because they have been doing it for so long and never got into an accident, but it is really just an illusion. Some people believe it is ok to text at a stop sign or red light. However, when one does that, they lose situational awareness. For example, they might not realize the light turned green. And when they eventually realize it, they just go, without looking for or perceiving obstacles around them that they would have been more likely to notice had they simply been paying attention to the road when stopped.

But what about talking on a phone while driving? The obvious answer is that having one hand on the wheel is not wise because then you don’t have as much control. “Alright,” you say, “I’ll use a hands-free device.” In this scenario, you have your eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel, so no problem, right? Wrong! Your mind is not on the road. You are thinking about the conversation, and more mental resources are used if the conversation is particularly important or heated for example. This means that you might be able to stay in your lane fairly well, and maintain a decent speed, but then miss an obstacle in front of you.

How can that be if you are looking straight ahead the whole time? Well, two things: first, the obstacle may be coming from the side, and we tend to get tunnel vision when talking on the phone; and two, there is a concept called inattentional blindness in Psychology. It is where you are looking directly at something but don’t perceive it. Something can be detected by our eyes, but our brains don’t tell us about it. Don’t think that is possible? Check out this video clip and follow the directions. You might be very surprised. Furthermore, having your mind off the road slows your perception-reaction time. In other words, it might make you slower to react once you do notice the hazard.

What about other types of distracters? Passengers can be a major one. For instance, when talking to someone in the car, you are likely to look at them from time to time, meaning that you won’t be looking at the road the entire time. The other problem is that, once again, your mind is focused on something other than driving. With that said, however, there are advantages to having passengers. For one, they are in the car with you and unlike someone on the phone, can see the driving conditions and are more likely to stop talking when things get busy for instance. Also, a passenger might notice an obstacle that you as the driver did not notice. Further, some people are more inclined to drive safer with a passenger, given that there is another life in the vehicle.

There are many types of internal-to-car distracters, but there are also many distracters outside of the car. A great example is a car accident. It is human nature to want to see what is going on. Another one is billboards. Sometimes they are quite flashy and can be pretty far away from the center of the road. Just moving your eyes slightly away from the road can really make a difference.

Try this demo: Take a regular sheet of paper and write a letter on it that is a good 6 inches tall. Then get someone to stare straight ahead without moving their eyes or head (make sure not to show them the letter). Pass the paper around them, starting with the far periphery. Hold the paper about a foot from their face. Ask them to say “stop” when they can actually read what the letter says. You might be shocked that even with a letter so large, they won’t be able to read the detail until it is just about right in front of them.

In other words, our vision is terrible outside of the center of the visual field. There are so many distracters outside our vehicle that it is amazing that we can get anywhere safely. The best thing we can do is be aware of the dangers and keep scanning the environment, rather than focusing on something for too long.

Read The Juice and The Grove next week for my next article, which will discuss the effects our expectancies have on driving. Why does this happen? How can we miss things right in front of us and what can we do about it?

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