Study: Measuring cognitive distraction

14823916_sThroughout Illinois and the United States, many people believe that mobile phones can be safely used while driving if they have a hands-free feature because it results in less cognitive distraction. Cognitive distraction occurs when the mind is no longer focusing on the task at hand. A study by the American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety titled Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile has recently shown that hand-held devices may increase the number of distracted drivers instead of acting as a solution to the problem. 

Study set-up

In order to measure motorists’ cognitive distraction levels effectively, scientists created three avenues in which to compare results. They placed drivers in a lab, in a driving simulator, and in an instrumented vehicle and then had each person perform the following tasks while in each separate environment:

  • Talking to a passenger
  • Listening to the radio
  • Listening to a recorded audio book
  • Talking to someone on their hand-held phone
  • Talking to someone on their hands-free phone
  • Interacting with a speech-to-text email system 

Scientists measured brain waves, eye movement, brake reaction time, and other cognitive abilities to determine an accurate estimate for each driver’s cognitive distraction at each task and in each environment. As controls, participants were also tested on their ability to drive in a non-distracting environment as well as solving complex verbal and math problems. 

The study’s key findings

While AAA estimates that as many as 66 percent of licensed drivers believe hand-held cell phone use is acceptable, this study finds the opposite to be true. Even if a driver’s eyes are fully engaged on the road and their hands are firmly gripping the wheel, high levels of cognitive distraction result in significant impairments that can lead to car accidents. These impairments include suppressed brain activity, increased reaction time, missed cues and decreased visual scanning of the road ahead.

Assigning the anchor tasks of driving without distraction a value of 1, and performing complex verbal and math problems a 5, scientists were able to rank the various tasks for their level of distraction. Listening to the radio was the least distracting behavior at 1.21 and interacting with a speech-to-text system proved the most distracting at 3.06. Speaking with a passenger received a 2.33 and hand-held cell phone use received a 2.45. Hands-free cell phone use received a 2.27.

This study confirms that hands-free driving does not remove all risk from distraction. Anything that places a high cognitive demand on drivers can lead to degradation in brain activity that is necessary for them to make timely reactions to their environments. When drivers are distracted, they can cause accidents that result in serious injury to those all around them. Those who have been injured by a distracted driver can contact a personal injury attorney in Chicago to review their case.