Distracted driving? It’s all in your head

Feb. 12, 2010
Of all the challenges facing truck drivers today, one of the toughest to identify and remedy is distracted driving. Driving, it turns out, is an especially difficult task for humans, accustomed for millennia to dealing with things, at worst, at the speed of a fast run

Of all the challenges facing truck drivers today, one of the toughest to identify and remedy is distracted driving. Driving, it turns out, is an especially difficult task for humans, accustomed for millennia to dealing with things, at worst, at the speed of a fast run. Three experts on the subject of distracted driving shared their perspectives in a free, live webcast this week, presented by Truckload Carriers Assn. and Fleet Owner and sponsored by Xata.

Guest speakers included David Money, technical director transportation services for the Loss Control Advisory Services Group of Liberty Mutual Insurance; Prof. Shlomo Breznitz, an internationally recognized cognitive psychologist, president of CogniFit and founding director of the Center for the Study of Psychological Stress at the University of Haifa, Israel; and Stephen Keppler, interim executive director for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance.

“We talk a lot about multi-tasking,” Breznitz explained, “but people don’t really do that. Instead, we just switch very rapidly between tasks without losing our place. Problems occur when our brain is presented with a conflict for our attention. For example, if you are using your visual ‘channel’ to drive a vehicle and your cell phone suddenly rings, there is competition between the auditory and visual channels, and the auditory always wins.”

This ears-beat-eyes phenomenon occurs because auditory information is always sequential; that is the only way we can process it. “Visual processing is spatial; we can blink and not much changes or is lost during that time,” Breznitz said. “So the brain learns that you have to attend to sequential auditory input more carefully than visual if you don’t want to miss something. This priority given to audio by the brain actually blocks visual input, so that you can be looking right at something, but not really see it; it is just not registering.”

Driving distractions come in many forms, all three speakers noted. Keppler grouped them into three basic categories: visual, or eyes- off -the–road distractions; manual, or hands-off-the-wheel distractions; and cognitive, or mind-off-what-you-are-doing distractions.

Liberty Mutual’s Money grouped distractions not by type, but by source: wireless communication devices (by far the most serious causes of distraction when it comes to safety), passenger-created distractions, internal, vehicle, personal hygiene, eating, external, talking but with no passenger evident, smoking, daydreaming and other. It is no wonder some 19 state have already banned texting.

Regardless of how they are grouped, distractions are a serious problem. Some 16% of all fatal crashes, according to Money, are related to distractions. What is worse, drivers in test environments demonstrated again and again that they did not postpone distracting tasks while driving until it was safer to do them. “Driver decisions were random in nature,” observed Money. “There was no strategic delay of tasks [until a safer time].”

The challenge today, speakers agreed, is to use all the tools at hand, including enhanced awareness of driver distractions, distraction management training and limiting the type and frequency of possible in-vehicle distractions, to make the job of driving as safe as it possibly can be—not an easy goal for driving-challenged humans.

Nearly 400 people registered to attend the live webcast this week. An archived version of the complete one-hour program is available online, free of charge.

About the Author

Wendy Leavitt

Wendy Leavitt joined Fleet Owner in 1998 after serving as editor-in-chief of Trucking Technology magazine for four years.

She began her career in the trucking industry at Kenworth Truck Company in Kirkland, WA where she spent 16 years—the first five years as safety and compliance manager in the engineering department and more than a decade as the company’s manager of advertising and public relations. She has also worked as a book editor, guided authors through the self-publishing process and operated her own marketing and public relations business.

Wendy has a Masters Degree in English and Art History from Western Washington University, where, as a graduate student, she also taught writing.  

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