Almost universally, people agree that certain activities are distractions to drivers of any age and experience level. Reading, eating or texting are often considered some of the most distracting activities to undertake while behind the wheel. With many laws on the books across the nation limiting or preventing cell phone use, drivers can still find their way around these rules by using handsfree communication technology. But is this activity safer?
While scientific studies have had a challenging time reaching a strong consensus, the very nature of a cognitive distraction suggests drivers should hold off on making phone calls until they’ve reached their destination.
What is a cognitive distraction?
In general, driving distractions are broken into three categories – manual, visual and cognitive. A manual distraction is one that requires the use of one or both hands. A visual distraction is one that takes a driver’s gaze off the road. A cognitive distraction, then, is an activity that pulls a driver’s mental focus from his or her environment.
While safety experts often link cognitive distractions with passive activities such as daydreaming, they generally represent active actions. Thinking about where to stop for dinner, for example, or mentally running through the day’s work events all pull focus from the road. This is where the phone conversation becomes dangerous. The act of participating in a conversation, even one that is engaged over a handsfree device, requires mental energy.
The driver must not only listen to what the other participant is saying, but he or she must consider the conversation and plan an appropriate response. This represents an active cognitive distraction that forces a driver to think about something other than safely navigating traffic.
Distracted drivers can cause motor vehicle collisions with catastrophic results. Vehicle occupants can suffer broken bones, brain trauma, spinal cord damage and paralysis. Depending on the types of vehicles involved and the severity of the collision, the crash could even mean fatalities.