Trucks at Work
The “cognitive dissonance” of distraction

The “cognitive dissonance” of distraction

"Our brains aren't designed to perform two cognitively complex tasks at the same time, such as driving while having a cell phone conversation. The brain shifts between tasks and, in doing so, filters information out because it is too overwhelmed.” –Janet Froetscher, president and CEO, National Safety Council

We all know by now that distracted driving is an issue that’s getting a lot of legal and regulatory attention these days.

For example, just last month Delaware became the 30th state in the union to pass a law creating a comprehensive statewide restriction on handheld cell phone use while driving. The measure prohibits drivers from text messaging, sending or reading e-mails or browsing websites while a vehicle is in motion.


Under Delaware’s law, the first offense carries a penalty of $50, with a second offense carries a fine of $100 to $200. Furthermore, the law is primary, meaning police can stop drivers if they suspect a violation of this law alone.

OK, so WHY is distraction getting so much rapid attention from federal and state officials these days? For starters, according to the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), distracted driving is a major cause of highway fatalities.

Nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in distracted driving crashes nationwide, according to NHTSA’s figures, with the highest proportion of those crashes involved teenaged drivers – indeed, a total of 659 teens were killed in distracted driving-related crashes two years ago.

That’s the WHY; but what about the HOW here? HOW does distracted driving vastly increase the crash and fatality risk of vehicle operators?

The reason stems for what’s dubbed “cognitive distraction” called “inattention blindness,” meaning drivers on a cell phone "look at" but do not "see" up to 50% of the information in their driving environment, according to a white paper compiled by the National Safety Council (NSC). Distracted drivers end up missing vital visual cues critical to safety and navigation, which also includes missing exits, going through red lights, and blowing past stop signs.


“Our brains aren't designed to perform two cognitively complex tasks at the same time, such as driving while having a cell phone conversation,” said Janet Froetscher, NSC’s president and CEO.

“The brain shifts between tasks and, in doing so, filters information out because it is too overwhelmed. As a result, drivers can't take corrective action,” she explained. “That's why you hear of people getting into car crashes who were using their cell phones. Their brains didn't process critical driving cues. When a driver fails to notice events in the driving environment, it's impossible to execute a safe response – such as stopping for a red light.”

Vision is the most important sense for safe driving, noted NSC’s researchers in the group’s white paper. They need to process everything in the roadway environment that they must know to effectively monitor their surroundings, seek and identify potential haz¬ards, and respond to unexpected situations.

Now, overlay that onto the picture of cell phone use in the U.S. Today, there are more than 285.6 million wireless subscribers nationwide and although public sentiment appears to be turning against cell phone use while driving, many admit they regularly talk or text while driving.

NHTSA estimates that 11% of all drivers at any given time are using cell phones, and the NSC further calculates more than one in four motor vehicle crashes involve cell phone use at the time of the crash.


That “disconnect” is even more prominent amongst teenage drivers. Despite a wider understanding of the dangers, the overwhelming majority of teen drivers engage in distracted driving behaviors anyway, according to a recent survey by AAA and Seventeen magazine.

Almost nine in 10 teenage drivers (86%) admit to driving while distracted, even though 84% of teen drivers know it's dangerous. The survey, featured in the September issue of Seventeen magazine, is based on the responses of nearly 2,000 male and female teen drivers ages 16 – 19 in a poll conducted last May.

Of those surveyed, 60% admit to talking on a cell phone while driving, with the reasons for doing so varying across a number of areas: some 41% think their action will only take a split second; 35% don't think they'll get hurt; 34% said they're used to multitasking; and 32% don't think that anything bad will happen to them.

Even as passengers, teen drivers worry about distracted driving, with nearly four out of 10 (38%) saying they have been afraid they were going to get hurt because they were the passenger of a distracted driver. More than one-third of teen drivers (36%) believe they have been involved in a near-crash because of their own or someone else's distracted driving.

“Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for teen drivers and the proliferation of distracted driving among teens is a challenge all of us must face head-on,” said Beth Mosher, director of public affairs for AAA. “Because of their lack of driving experience and penchant to take risks, it's imperative that teen drivers – like all drivers – remain focused behind the wheel at all times.”


Teenagers, of course, don’t pilot big rigs (and thank goodness for THAT!) but they share the road with them every day. And how car drivers behave behind the wheel is a huge factor in truck-car collisions.

Five years ago, Craig Harper, executive vp for Lowell, AR-based truckload carrier J.B. Hunt, noted during a meeting of the International Truck & Bus Safety and Security Symposium that accident research conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) shows that blame for the fatality rate shouldn’t be placed on truckers alone.

“The AAA study found that in 73% of the truck-car crashes studied, no unsafe act on the part of the truck driver caused the accident,” he said at the time.

Other crash research Harper pointed to showed that car drivers are four times more likely to rear end a truck than truckers are to rear end cars; are 10 times more likely to crash into a truck head on than vice versa; are three times more likely to speed in poor road conditions (such as rain) than truck drivers; and are eight times more likely to be involved in crashes involving drowsiness than truckers.

Just one more reason why “cognitive distraction” factors behind the wheel need to be addressed.