New study shows effects of cognitive distractions on drivers

Motor vehicle accidents are all too common throughout the U.S. In 2012 alone, there were more than 270,000 collisions in the state of Illinois. Accidents can be caused by any number of factors, but historically, speeding and alcohol have been the top contributors. According to the National Safety Council, distractions are now also among the leading causes for motor vehicle involved crashes in America. A study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that a distraction of some kind was involved in 80 percent of all auto accidents.

Distractions facing today’s drivers

In relation to driving, a distraction is anything that is competing for a driver’s attention. There are numerous distractions that may divert a motorist’s attention away from the road, including listening to the radio, talking on the phone and text messaging. For the most part, there are three primary types of distractions – visual, manual and cognitive. Visual distractions are those that take the driver’s eyes off of the road. Manual distractions take the driver’s hands off of the wheel. Cognitive distractions are those that take the driver’s mind off of the task of driving.

Studying the effects of cognitive distractions

Of the distractions drivers face, the effects of mental distractions are the least researched. The goal of a recent study by the American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety was to gain a better understanding of how cognitive distractions affect drivers by creating a scale to measure these types of distractions. 

In the study, participants were asked to perform different tasks in a lab, a driving simulator and an instrumented car. Electronic sensors, cameras and other equipment were used to gather data throughout the tasks. Researchers determined the low and high end of the scale by monitoring the participants driving without any distraction and while completing a set of complex math and verbal problems. The study participants were also asked to listen to the radio, listen to an audiobook, talk on both a hand-held and a hands-free phone, converse with a passenger and use some type of speech-to-text technology.

Study shows mental distractions a threat 

The study’s findings showed that drivers could be distracted, even if their eyes were on the road and their hands on the wheel. The use of speech-to-text technologies and other hands-free options has long been thought of as effective in reducing distractions to a driver. However, the study showed that using this type of technology was one of the most distracting tasks for drivers. On the whole, the tasks were shown to cause increased mental workloads for the drivers, which resulted in:

  • Compromised brain function
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Narrowed field of vision
  • Missed visual cues

In January of 2014, Illinois passed a law banning the use of hand-held phones by drivers. Based on the new study, however, going hands-free may not be enough to keep drivers from getting into a distraction related accident. Therefore, avoiding all distractions while driving is the best way for motorists to ensure that they are not endangering themselves or anyone else.

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Distraction and truck drivers make a deadly combination

Crashes involving large trucks claimed more than 3,000 lives in 2012, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Truck accidents often have devastating consequences for other motorists since trucks may weigh more than 20 times what passenger vehicles do. Though some large truck accidents are caused by unavoidable circumstances, the leading accident cause is driver error, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Distracted driving has been identified as one common behavior that causes errors and needlessly puts the lives of Illinois drivers in danger.

Risky behaviors

Drivers of large trucks must actively plan ahead and monitor changing conditions to avoid accidents, so even minor distractions can be unsafe. One FMCSA study found distraction was a definite cause in 10 percent of large truck accidents. With more than 300,000 large truck accidents causing over 100,000 injuries and 3,921 fatalities in 2012 alone, as reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the number of injuries and fatalities caused by distracted truck drivers is not trivial.

Texting and dialing are especially dangerous distractions. Research from Virginia Tech Transportation Institute indicates that texting raises the crash risk 23 times for large truck drivers, while simply dialing a phone raises the risk 5.9 times. The FMCSA targets these risks by banning truck drivers from texting or using handheld cell phones, but these regulations can be difficult to enforce.

Unfortunately, research has established that many legal distractions also increase accident risk. Common but dangerous behaviors include eating, adjusting in-vehicle controls and reaching for objects inside the vehicle. The FMCSA publishes recommendations on truck driver best practices but cannot enforce sanctions for these behaviors, which may leave other motorists vulnerable.

Injured victims’ rights 

People who are injured in a large truck accident involving distracted driving are entitled to compensation, if they can prove negligence on the part of the driver or the trucking company. Negligence may be established even if a driver was not breaking FMCSA regulations and Illinois law. Legal distracted behaviors and the accidents they cause often represent reasonably preventable dangers for which drivers can be held liable.

Illinois accident victims are given two years from the date of injury to file a personal injury lawsuit. Illinois law requires the victim to prove fault, which can be done through official accident reports and medical documentation of the injuries sustained. Victims who establish fault are entitled to economic damages for expenses associated with the injuries and non-economic damages for pain and suffering. These awards cannot reverse the damage done, but they can help victims manage their expenses while learning to live with their injuries.

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