April Is Distracted Driving Awareness Month: How Expectations Influence Our Perceptions When Driving


Tuesday, April 12, 2022

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

In this second article in my series, I’ll share how expectations influence our perceptions while driving. When people think of perception, they usually think of the five senses and how the eye and ear parts function. Yes, that is a part of it, but really perception is involving the brain.

Sensation and perception are not synonymous. Sensation is the process of picking up information in the environment and turning it into electrical signals. But then the brain takes that info and translates it for us. That translation can be impacted by many factors, such as emotions and expectations from past experiences.

Think about it this way: you have a Lego tower in the real world. Sensation and perception would be like breaking it down into its separate bricks, taking a blow torch and melting the plastic, and then taking that melted plastic and trying to recreate the original tower as best as possible. The question is, how close is that representation the brain made of the environment, that melted plastic tower, to the original Lego tower in the environment? The truth is, we really don’t know for sure what is out there in the world, just what our brain tells us. It’s like our translator for a language we don’t understand.

With all that said, there are two related rules in perception. If we expect to see something, then we are more likely to perceive it. On the other hand, if we are not expecting something, we are less likely to perceive it. I had a video link in my first article that demonstrated the concept of inattentional blindness. This showed that even when we are looking directly at something, we can miss it. Why? Possibly because we are distracted, but also possibly because we were not expecting it.

We as humans are most sensitive to a greenish-yellow color in bright daylight. And you may have even seen some firetrucks in that color, or maybe a yellow. But there is a good reason to keep fire trucks red … we are expecting a red firetruck. Thus, even though we are more sensitive to greenish-yellow, it might take us longer to react to a fire truck painted in that color because we are not expecting one to be in that color.

Take another example: Let’s say that you are driving on a road that you have driven many times and frequently see annoying squirrels crossing the road. One time driving, you see what you believe was another pesky squirrel. But in fact, it was some trash blowing across the road. Now you assumed that it was a squirrel because that is what you expected. And it wasn’t like you were spending seconds trying to determine what the object was… you really swore it was a squirrel. You are amazed that it is not one.

Florida, and Orlando in particular, is notorious for accidents between cars and bicycles, motorcycles and pedestrians. One problem with bicycles and motorcycles, in particular, is that they are not as frequently encountered. Even in sunny Florida (except every summer afternoon, of course), they are much less common than cars. So what happens, just as I explained above, is that people don’t perceive there is one of those road objects present, even if looking directly at it.

Again, if you are not expecting it, because they are not as frequently encountered, you are less likely to perceive it. We call this “looked but failed to see.” It is basically what I mentioned about inattentional blindness. The driver was alert, not distracted, looking straight ahead, and still swore they saw no obstacle in front of them.

One common accident is making a left turn across traffic and hitting a motorcyclist. Part of this could be due to the motorcycle’s relatively small size and it blending in with the background, but also some of it could be due to the lack of expectancy.

You might be surprised to find out how easy it is to miss a change in a scene because of distraction and a lack of expectation. Take a look at this video. It was based off a real experiment.

When the situation is strange, unusual, or not what we are expecting, it can cause our reaction time to slow down. Take this situation … a driver is traveling on a country road at night with no streetlights. Suddenly he encounters what appears to be headlights directly in his lane, in other words coming head on:

This is a very confusing situation. Is the driver on the wrong side of the road? Are the headlights coming from a vehicle that is on the wrong side of the road? Is it even a vehicle? And the driver had about as much time as it takes you to fully read this sentence to determine what he was perceiving, what to do about it and perform some action.

A driver driving on the wrong side of the road is not a typically encountered event. Therefore this slows reaction time. The driver must decide what to do but is unsure of what is even happening and starts to question what they are perceiving. By the time they decide what to do, it may be too late to avoid an accident. Or what could occur is that they end up making a dangerous invasive maneuver. In fact, it is all an illusion created by the linear perspective depth cue. The car is actually safely on the side of the road (I bet it fooled you).

There are so many other examples of violating expectancies, such as when things change in a construction zone (turning what was a straight highway on I-4 into a Formula 1 racetrack).

Another example: a new stop sign. They often put flashers or neon flags to notify the driver of the new traffic signal, but it is still easy to miss because, once again, you are not expecting it. One more example … you are driving and there are no major intersections or traffic signals ahead. You expect that the driver ahead of you will continue driving at more or less the same speed. But suddenly, the car in front of you hits the breaks. This causes a lot of accidents, as you might imagine.

So what can we do? Well, awareness of the problem is the first step. Some of this comes with more experienced driving, which you must accumulate over time. It can’t be taught. Research finds that motorcyclists are more likely to identify other motorcycles on the road. Of course, if you can’t see something, you can’t perceive it. Therefore visibility is important, which will be the next topic in next week’s issue of The Juice and in The Grove.

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