Dealing with Driving Distractions
The Cognitive Basis of Distracted Driving

The Cognitive Basis of Distracted Driving: The Multitasking Myth

Updated Oct. 11, 2019

What is it about distracted driving that is so dangerous? Here, we will explore how the human mind engages with different tasks, in order to understand what effect distractions – such as eating or using your cell phone - will have on your ability to drive. Despite what you may think, human beings are not capable of efficiently carrying out several tasks at the same time. Let’s find out why.

The multitasking myth

People are often led to believe that multitasking is an ordinary part of day-to-day life. After all, aren’t we capable of eating, walking and checking our emails simultaneously? Our modern lives are so hectic that we must often manage several different thought processes and physical actions side-by-side. If we can achieve this in other situations, then why not while driving? We can all relate to this to some extent, but we what we do not realize is that this is not “multitasking” in its truest sense. Check out our “Being Fit to Drive” section to learn more about multitasking while driving.

While we may often feel as if we are performing two or more tasks at the same time, we’re not, as the human brain is physically incapable of it. Recent research has shown that the way we manage multiple tasks is more like juggling. Our minds cope with several tasks by switching attention rapidly from one task to another. This means that you are only ever working on one task at a time. While driving and engaging in a distracting activity such as eating or combing your hair, your mind will not be focused on driving at all, for at least some of the time. It’s a frightening reality!

Perceptual blindness

Perceptual blindness is a mental state whereby a person’s brain becomes incapable of absorbing visual details comprehensively. This can occur if your brain becomes “overloaded” as a result of trying to gather information from more than one source while managing two or more tasks at once. For instance, if you are monitoring the roadway while attempting to plan a route with a navigational device.

While suffering with perceptual blindness, details from the roadway environment will slip through the net and you will not even realize it. If these are important details, like road signs, traffic signals or the presence of pedestrians at a cross walk, your perceptual blindness could result in a serious accident.

The more information your brain is forced to sort through at the same time, the greater the chances that perceptual blindness will cause you to overlook essential information. The only way to drive safely and attentively is to focus all your cognitive energy on controlling your vehicle and scanning the roadway. These activities are mentally challenging on their own, without also adding reading a text message or chatting to a friend into the mix.

Delayed response

The cognitive strain you will experience while juggling multiple tasks at once will lead to a general delay in response time, which could prove to be lethal behind the wheel. If you allow yourself to become distracted by unnecessary tasks while driving, you can expect your overall reaction time to be considerably longer. If some unexpected danger occurs on the roadway ahead of you while you’re in this state, the chances of you reacting fast enough to avoid a collision are slim to none. It happens to thousands of distracted drivers around the country every day.

Sensory overload

The many mental and physical demands of driving can cause sensory overload all by themselves – particularly where novice drivers are concerned. When you first begin learning to drive, the mental strain of trying to monitor the road, use the pedals appropriately and maintain proper steering technique will render you incapable of engaging in any other activity. This is why less experienced drivers are so vulnerable to the cognitive effects of distracted driving.

Of course, many driving actions will become reflexive over time, freeing up the mental space necessary to drive comfortably. However, allowing yourself to become distracted by a non-essential activity while behind the wheel can push your right back to the edge of sensory overload and increase the likelihood that you will miss important events on the roadway. Irrespective of how long you have been driving or how comfortable you are behind the wheel, the only way to stay safe while driving is to remain focused on the task at hand and avoid becoming distracted.

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There is no driver distraction more dangerous than texting, emailing or sending any other written communication with an electronic device. While typing on a cell phone or similar device, you will be visually, manually and cognitively distracted from the task of driving.

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Using Multimedia Devices and Reading

The risks associated with using a cell phone while driving also apply to laptops, computers, tablets and all other electronic devices. Taking your attention away from the road to engage in any non-driving related task is incredibly dangerous.

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Visual Search Patterns

Knowing where to look and how long for can be confusing for new drivers, particularly when there is so much to keep track of inside your car, right in front of the vehicle and 20 seconds ahead of you on the roadway. To drive safely, you need to adopt a systematic and efficient method of visually scanning your environment.

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Safe Following Distance

It is impossible to drive safely and attentively without leaving enough space between your vehicle and the car ahead of you. Maintaining an adequate following distance is crucial to maximize your view of the roadway up ahead.

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The Effects of Speed

Keeping speed to a minimum is one of the best risk-reducing tactics you can employ as an attentive driver. As the speed you are traveling at increases, so too does the danger you are exposed to and the challenges you face.

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Interacting With Other Drivers

Without effective communication between motorists, it would be impossible to predict the movement of other vehicles and negotiate the roadway safely. Attentive, conscientious motorists think about how their actions will affect other drivers and endeavor to behave considerately, at all times. It is not simply a matter of being polite, it is a matter of safety.

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Distracted Driving

While some distractions can be avoided, there is no way to remove all possible distractions from any driving environment. Therefore, we must know how to handle them safely when they occur.

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The Risks of Distracted Driving

Any activity you engage in which does not immediately relate to the driving task is considered a distraction. This includes travel-related activities such as map reading or operating a navigation device. Irrespective of how important you may consider an activity to be, controlling your vehicle and monitoring the roadway demands your full attention and must take precedence.