‘Understanding Cognitive Distraction’ & the ‘Myth Behind Multitasking’

‘Understanding Cognitive Distraction’ & the ‘Myth Behind Multitasking’

Today marks the first day of a new penalty for distracted driving in British Columbia. As of today, 3 demerit points will be added to the current $167 fine for using a hand-held electronic device while driving. This has stirred quite a debate among those who support stiffer penalties and those who think it’s ‘just a money grab.’

One issue that has been commented on is the actual definition of distracted driving: does it include eating a hamburger, changing the radio station, adjusting your GPS, and, do all these activities need a law to curb the behaviour? Alberta is currently the only province in BC with legislation that goes beyond the use of handheld electronic devices to include: eating, drinking, personal grooming, writing and reading.

Add to that the issue of distractions that aren’t as easily identifiable, such as day dreaming, which a 2013 study found to be the number one cause of fatal distracted driving collisions.

David Teater, senior director of Transportation Initiatives at the National Safety Council tackles an aspect of distracted driving that most people have trouble understanding, let alone accepting: cognitive distraction.

There are three main types of driver distraction:

  • visual – the driver takes their eyes off the road
  • manual – the driver takes their hand(s) off the wheel
  • cognitive – the mind is not fully engaged in driving

So, what exactly is distracting to a driver? Unfortunately, it’s a long list and not all of it can be covered under legislation: eating, drinking, switching radio stations, adjusting temperature, pets on laps, disruptive passengers, personal grooming, sex, emotionally compromised drivers, changing clothes, etc. Basically, if you can think of it, chances are better than not that someone, somewhere is trying to do it while driving.

Clearly visual and manual are the easiest to identify because there is something visibly tangible in those types of distractions. Cognitive or mental distraction is much harder to identify making it one of the most challenging distractions to address.

Following a study out of Western Washington University, Prof. Ira E. Hyman, Psychology found that, “It’s not a question of what your hands are doing. It’s a question of what your head is doing.” When drivers are one cell phones, hands-free or not, they can’t fully focus on driving or even walking.

As David, points out in this video, it’s like trying to watch your favourite television show while carrying on a conversation; your brain can’t do both, it has to choose to focus fully on one or the other.

So, just how many tasks can a driver juggle behind the wheel and still drive safely? Turns out, it’s just one…David digs a little deeper into the issue of cognitive distraction by explaining the myth behind multitasking:

The point is being…your mind, eyes and hands need to be on the task of driving if you’re going to drive safely. Once drivers start juggling other activities at the wheel, including mental juggling, the risks of a collision go up which means the risk of injuries and fatalities also increases.

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