Canadian legislation is focused on the dangers of using hand-held cell phones while driving, but using hands-free devices while driving may not be that much safer, according to panelists attending the Driven to Distraction conference in Toronto on Mar. 1.
The Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) and the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) organized the conference.
Researchers at the conference said there are three basic forms of distraction while driving.
Visual distractions such as billboards or video screens may take the driver’s eyes off the road. Manual distractions, such as eating or texting while driving, take the driver’s hands off the wheel.
Cognitive distractions — for example, hands-free phone conversations while driving — take the driver’s mind off the road, even if the driver has full control of the wheel and has his or her eyes on the road.
Researchers are currently studying the effects of cognitive distractions on driving safety. They say this form of driver distraction lead to a phenomenon called ‘inattention blindness.’ Basically, when a driver is engaged in a dual focus — driving and talking on a hands-free, for example — although the brain is taking in information while it drives, it is not fully processing the information. This particularly affects the navigation of a car.
Dr. David Strayer of the University of Utah showed a video clip of a van driving through a red light in an intersection without reducing speed. The van crashed into a car that was following a green light and making a right turn into the van’s lane.
Strayer said the van driver was engaged in a phone conversation at the time and believed the red light was actually green.
“When people miss traffic lights at intersections, they may be able to see stuff, but they may actually not be processing or registering the information they are seeing,” Strayer said. “What happens is they may not be paying full attention to the road, they aren’t processing information, they are talking on the phone, and that critical information [such as a red light] just simply disappears.”
Strayer cited a study conducted in the United States, in which drivers were asked to follow directions along a highway and asked to turn off at a specific exit. Those who were on the phone while driving were 50% more likely to miss the designated turn-off than those who weren’t using the phone while driving.
Cognitive distraction can also affect the longitudinal control of the car.
“Mind off the road means that when you are driving around, say engaged in some phone or navigation task, it is quite likely that the quality of your interaction with the other road users will substantially deteriorate,” said Dr. Oliver Carsten of the University of Leeds. “The head is facing down, you are getting closer to the vehicle [in front of you] as it changes speed as the your distraction goes up.”
Traffic safety researchers at the conference say they need to explore more fully the effects of cognitive distraction, which is much more difficult to track empirically than visual or manual forms of driver distraction.