Ok, so we can all agree that we know at least one person who texts and drives or just loves talking on the phone with people while driving. I do not know about you, but I get really nervous when I am the passenger, especially when I see the driver texting and watching videos on their cellphone. If being on your cellphone is distracting, then obviously it should be turned off while you are driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distractions are the leading cause of most fatal car accidents (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2015). This is pretty scary, but I know that some people such as business owners cannot simply turn off their phone while driving because they are regularly called. Some may argue that people can talk on the phone while driving without any issues but texting, on the other hand, is too distracting. So, is talking on the phone less dangerous than texting on the phone? How does this affect our attention while driving?
There was a recent study done by Thomas A. Dingus and his colleagues that expands the research on how engagements in primarily cognitive secondary tasks that do not interfere with visual-manual demands correlate with car accidents (Thomas et al.,2019). According to the research, “primarily cognitive secondary task generally refers to occasions during which the driver’s attention is directed away from the primary tasks associated with safely controlling a vehicle by a task that does not place apparent visual-manual demands on the driver” (Thomas et al.,2019). Thomas and his colleagues used previous data from 3,454 drivers that volunteered to be monitored using in-vehicle cameras as part of the Second Strategic Highway Research Program Naturalistic Driving Study (SHRP 2). Their results indicate that although secondary tasks that do not require the use of hands and/or eyes can affect performance, the effect on crash risk is less severe than the secondary task that did. Surprisingly, conversations using handsfree cellphones may have no associated increase in crash risk and in some cases, it could even be associated with a lower risk! Thomas and his colleagues explain that there are several reasons why a decrease in driver performance during cognitive engagement may not result in a corresponding increase in crash risk. One of the reasons might be that engagement in cognitive secondary task might keep us alert.
The findings are shocking to me, but let’s keep in mind the limitations. First, primary cognitive distraction is very difficult to measure using the data given by the SHRP 2 because it is challenging to know what is going on inside the driver’s mind without any invasive instrumentation. For instance, how could the researchers measure distractions such as mind-wandering with just by observing the videos? Also, this study did not include the degree to which off-road glances could affect a drivers’ risk in a crash when performing primarily cognitive secondary tasks.
So, should we be ok with driving and speaking on the phone? Well, I say be smart and play it safe. If you are going to drive for a relatively short distance, then you should turn off your phone to prevent any distractions or temptations of texting and driving. If you are a very busy person, such as do people that run a business, and are driving at long distance, remember to use hands-free and keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel. Remember that you are not just endangering yourself, but your loves ones that in the passenger’s seat when you are being distracted and driving.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2015National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (2015). 2015 Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview. Traffic Safety Facts Research Note (Report No. DOT HS 812 318). Washington, DC: NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis. Retrieved from <https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812318>.
Thomas A. Dingus, Justin M. Owens, Feng Guo, Youjia Fang, Miguel Perez, Julie McClafferty, Mindy Buchanan-King, Gregory M. Fitch. The prevalence of and crash risk associated with primarily cognitive secondary tasks. Safety Science, 2019; DOI: 10.1016/j.ssci.2019.01.005