Distracted driving, cell phone use behind the wheel means less brain power for driving

Recently, Street Smarts received a letter from a reader who wanted to spread the word about the dangers of tailgating and, more specifically, driving while texting and/or talking on cell phones – even while using hands-free capabilities.

Even though drivers have been banned from talking on cell phones hand-held for several years, it is not uncommon to see motorists yacking away and driving distracted. But whether drivers are holding their phone or not, the conversation itself is diverting motorists' attention from the road. According to the California Office of Traffic Safety, drivers engaged in cell phone conversations, such as the one above, may be driving with less than 2/3 of her brain power and develop something called, "inattention blindness." The term means that while the eyes see a hazard up ahead, the phone conversation distracts the driver's brain from receiving or processing that information, creating the potential for a dangerous situation. Street Smarts heard from a reader who suffered inattention blindness while using hands-free capabilities to talk on her cell phone. During the conversation, she failed to see that the traffic light up ahead had turned red. Her car entered the intersection where she was broadsided by an unsuspecting motorist who had the green light. No one was injured, the reader said. (James Tensuan/Sentinel)

You see, she herself caused a collision when she was talking hands-free on her cellphone and didn't notice the green light up ahead had turned red. Upon entering the intersection, she was immediately T-boned by another vehicle. Neither party was hurt. Street Smarts turned to Chris Cochran, spokesman for the California Office of Traffic Safety for the science behind the dangers of distracted driving. Here are his words, uncut: "First, regarding the safety factor between hands-free and hand-held cell phone use while driving - - the danger factor is virtually the same. The only real difference is that, when using a hand-held phone, one hand is off the wheel. That can come into play in case of an emergency maneuver or the need to turn, etc., but many drivers use only one hand the whole time they are driving -- although the other is quickly available. What the major danger in cell phone use is not where your hands are, but where your head is. The act of talking on a cell phone, the conversation itself, is the actual dangerous distraction. "Although there are many research studies out there showing how distracting cell phone use is while driving, a recent one from Carnegie Mellon University pinpointed the conversation as the primary culprit. It showed that up to 37 percent of the brain function needed for the complicated task of safely driving a car is apt to be shunted over to the task of carrying on a cell phone conversation. You are now driving with less than 2/3 of your brain power. "Drivers can get what the brain scientists call cognitive disconnect, but is more descriptively known as inattention blindness. It is when the eyes see things but the brain processing that is needed for turning what is seen into something the conscious mind can work with is interrupted. As in the case of your reader, the eyes see the red light, but the brain doesn’t.  Why not? The cell phone conversation is using that part of the brain that is needed to perceive the importance of a red light in front of a moving car. "This disconnect is not nearly the same for talking with someone in the car with you, since they are sharing the riding experience and react accordingly. They slow their speech or even stop talking altogether when they perceive the small visual signs that may signal a 'situation' may be about to happen. Those possible situations actually are almost a constant around us as we drive. Sometimes passengers will even alert drivers to things before the driver sees them. However, the person on the other end of the cell phone conversation doesn’t have any idea what you are up against, nor do they really care, since they are also engrossed in the conversation. They, just like you, don’t actively consider that driving is a constant ballet of near misses. And since they are not reacting to anything but the conversation, the driver doesn’t either. "While hands-free is not illegal, our constant message is to not engage in any form of mobile device use while driving. No hand-held talking, no texting, also no Bluetooth, no speakerphone, no built-in dashboard integrated voice-activated devices. It’s all distracting. "Regarding multi-tasking, again scientific research has the scoop. There is actually no such thing as multi-tasking, where the mind is processing two or more things at the same time. There is only sequential-tasking, where the brain will work on one task, then stop and switch to another task, then stop that one and switch back. The rub comes from how fast that switching is going on. Let’s say that you are on Task A for one second, then Task B for one second, then back to Task A for one second again, and so on. If Task A is driving and Task B is cell phone talking, then in that one second your brain is away from driving, you have just traveled 100 feet at freeway speeds or used up 1/3 of a yellow light warning on a city street. And that is if you are giving equal time to both driving and talking. What if the conversation is with work talking about scheduling or an assignment? What if it is an argument with a family member?  A lot more than half time is likely given to the conversation. "The speed at which we can sequentially task slows as we age, but we’re talking small increments over decades. And that still means that young people are still off-task, just for shorter intervals. Being able to switch at a rate of a half second rather than a second means that on the freeway for a minute your brain is off-task for 60 half seconds rather than 30 full seconds. And we already know that the most dangerous years of driving are from 16-25." As for tailgating, the reader, who had never been in a collision prior to this one, said motorists who follow too closely, especially while driving distracted, risk rear-ending the vehicle up ahead should it stop unexpectedly. Helpful links: California Office of Traffic Safety, http://www.ots.ca.gov/Media_and_Research/campaigns/Distracted_Driving.asp California Department of Motor Vehicles, http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/brochures/fast_facts/ffdl28.htm National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, http://www.nhtsa.gov/About+NHTSA/Press+Releases/2012/DOT+Sec.+LaHood+Issues+Blueprint+for+Ending+Distracted+Driving,+Announces+$2.4+Million+for+California,+Delaware+Pilot+Projects Learn more about these and other traffic laws and research at www.ots.ca.gov, www.dmv.ca.gov and www.nhtsa.gov.
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