Study: Cognitive distractions a major hazard for drivers

Distractions are among the leading causes of motor vehicle accidents in Missouri, and throughout the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2011, almost one out of every five car accidents resulting in injuries involved a distracted driver. In general, anything that may compete for a driver’s attention can be considered a distraction. This can include listening to the radio, talking to a passenger or on the phone, and text messaging. While many people are aware of the potential dangers of manual and visual distractions for motorists, very few take notice of the effects that cognitive distractions may have on drivers.

Generally, visual distractions are those that take motorists’ eyes off the road and manual distractions are those that take drivers’ hands off of the wheel. Cognitive distractions, on the other hand, are distractions that take motorists’ minds off of the primary task of operating their vehicles.

A study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety sought to examine how cognitive distractions can affect drivers. The researchers conducting the study established a rating scale that could be used to measure the effects of cognitive distraction elements on motorists. To do this, they asked the study’s participants to perform a variety of tasks, including listing to the radio and an audiobook, converse with a passenger, talk on a handheld cell phone, talk on a hands-free device and use talk-to text technology. Researchers monitored the participants as they performed these tasks in a lab, in a driving simulator and in an instrumented vehicle using electronic sensors, cameras and other equipment.

Researchers learned through the study that drivers could be affected by distractions other than just those that take their eyes off of the road or their hands off of the wheel. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s study, cognitive distractions can also lead to significant impairments, which may result in car accidents. This is because these distractions can cause compromised brain function, missed visual cues, slowed reaction times and narrowed fields of vision. These impairments Additionally, the study found that speech-to-text technologies did not alleviate cognitive distractions. Instead, they were found to create the highest level of distraction among the tasks that researchers assessed. Based on the study’s findings, limiting distractions of all kinds is the best way for drivers to reduce their likelihood of being involved in collisions.


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