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Is it possible to measure a driver’s level of cognitive distraction?

On Behalf of | May 10, 2021 | Car Accidents |

Driver distractions generally fall into three categories: visual distractions, manual distractions and cognitive distractions. While visual and manual might be easier to measure as the hands need to be removed from the steering wheel and the eyes are pulled away from the road, it is more of a challenge to determine the impact the loss of focus can have.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety challenged the notion that as long as a driver’s eyes and hands were actively engaged in the operation of the vehicle, he or she could be considered a safe driver. From activities as simple as daydreaming about what to eat for dinner to the more complex cognitive action of participating in a conversation, interrupted brain activity can make a driver just as unsafe as if he or she had looked away from the road.

While the prevailing assumption has been that hands-free activities are safer, there is still a cognitive component to these actions. From talk-to-text chat features to having a phone conversation without actually touching the phone, drivers are more encouraged than ever to participate in potentially deadly distractions.

The experiment was performed across three settings: laboratory, driving simulator and instrumented vehicle. During the study, six common tasks were measured using numerous methods including brainwave activity as measured by an EEG, eye and head movements, and reaction time to on-road stimuli. The six common tasks were:

  • Music playing on the sound system
  • Audio book playing on the sound system
  • Driver participates in a conversation with a passenger
  • Driver participates in a conversation over a hand-held phone
  • Driver participates in a conversation on a hands-free phone
  • Driver uses a speech-to-text email system

Two additional conditions were measured to provide high and low anchor points for the study. These two conditions were:

  • Non-distracted driving
  • Completing a complex series of math and verbal problems while driving

The results of the study were eye-opening. Even while the driver had his or her hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road, the various sources of cognitive distraction caused significant impairment. Of note:

  • Increased reaction time to both peripheral stimuli and lead-car braking
  • Missed cues
  • Decreased accuracy in visual tests
  • Decreased visual scanning of the environment

A driver might feel that he or she is safe when avoiding secondary activities that require the eyes or hands. Activities such as eating, reading, personal grooming and participating in a text conversation by holding the phone are almost universally considered unsafe. Unfortunately, drivers also face serious collisions when performing the “safe” version of many of these activities – including the use of voice controls and hands-free conversations.

If you were injured in a motor vehicle collision caused by a distracted or negligent driver, do not hesitate to discuss your case with a skilled personal injury attorney. Based on your situation, you might be entitled to recover monetary compensation for your injuries, medical bills and lost wages.


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