New health report shows the dangers of distracted driving

Date: Sep 16, 2013

On a recent Radio National broadcast, Norman Swan sat down with an expert on neuroscience to uncover just how dangerous being distracted behind the wheel really is.

Mr Swan spoke to Nilli Lavie, a professor of psychology and brain sciences at University College of London's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. Ms Lavie stated that the recent rash of deadly car accidents in New South Wales may have been the result of distracted driving.

Specifically, the two discussed when seven motorists were killed around the state in one day, and how early investigations suggest mobile phone use may have been a factor in some of the crashes. But Ms Lavie stated that distracted driving doesn't stop at talking on a mobile phone.

The expert referenced one of her studies that dealt with "inattentional blindness" – a condition that may arise in someone who performs a tasks that requires heavy attention and brain stimulation.

"When people pay attention under such conditions the brain capacity to perceive any additional information that is not perceived as inherent to the task that they are doing is drastically impaired …it leads to various phenomena of inattentional blindness," she explained.

In other words, people may fail to notice events that otherwise would be extremely visible.

Driving and distractions: an unfortunate mix

Ms Lavie explained that this can – as has been shown in countless accidents – have disastrous consequences when drivers succumb to this inattentional blindness. This doesn't always have to be caused by a mobile phone, eating or fussing with the radio, though.

The design of roads, the number of signs found on them, billboards and other distractions all can potentially cause this phenomenon to occur. This could, counterintuitively, cause drivers to miss critical signs warning them of a sharp turn or workers present.

Ms Lavie asserted it may be necessary to alter road signs so that they stand out better. For example, a "kill your speed" sign may be much more effective than a "slow down" sign.

There is some legislation in place in New South Wales regarding distracted driving, however the bulk of it focuses on motor vehicles with display units. This includes CC TV, dispatch systems, rearview screens and other kinds that may be a distraction.

Distracted driving is becoming a serious concern statewide, and is thought to be the cause of many accidents that have led to car accident injuries and fatalities.

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