How does cognitive distraction endanger drivers?

Cognitive distraction, which may be behind an ongoing rise in serious car crashes, can cause a number of performance impairments that drivers may overlook.

Last year, fatal car crashes reached an unprecedented high here in Georgia, with over one thousand lives lost in these tragic accidents. Alarmingly, the state is on pace to set a new record in 2016; as of October 27, there were 1,127 reported traffic fatalities, according to WXFL News. This uptick mirrors a national rise in deadly auto accidents, which has continued for the past two years and been attributed largely to distracted driving.

Many people believe these distraction-related accidents largely involve diversions such as texting, which require manual, visual and mental focus. However, research increasingly shows that distractions with a purely cognitive nature - such as using a voice-based in-vehicle system or making a hands-free call - are just as dangerous. This makes it critical for motorists to understand how these distractions can impair their driving performance.

Slowed response time

Contrary to what many people may think, the brain is incapable of simultaneously handling more than one cognitively demanding task. When people attempt to multitask, the brain is forced to switch rapidly between each task. This results in worse performance at each one. When drivers multitask, the time that the brain spends focused on activities besides driving can result in dangerously slow response times.

Based on a review of over 30 studies into cognitive distraction and its effects on drivers, the National Safety Council states that cognitively distracted drivers are slower to brake for slow-moving vehicles and work zones. One simulation-based study even found that legally intoxicated drivers showed better response times than cognitively distracted drivers.

Obliviousness to surroundings

People who are focusing their mental attention on activities besides driving may be dangerously unaware of their surroundings, even if they feel like they are carefully monitoring them. Per the NSC, drivers who are talking on cellphones may fail to process up to half of the information that they see, including the following important cues:

· Navigational signage

· Traffic control devices and signs

· Pedestrians, bicyclists and other vulnerable road users

Worrisomely, research also shows that mentally distracted drivers are just as likely to miss important signals, such as stop signs, as they are to overlook secondary information.

Reduced cognitive activity

Finally, research shows that cognitive distraction may result in reduced activity in parts of the brain needed during driving. In one study, the act of listening to and analyzing language caused people performing a driving simulation to show lower activity in the regions of the brain that handle visual processing, spatial processing and navigation.

The researchers concluded that, even when a distraction requires the use of a different region of the brain, it might affect the performance of regions actively involved in driving. This suggests that there are limits to the cognitive processing that the brain can do at any given time.

Addressing accidents

Worrisomely, distractions of a purely cognitive nature have yet to be outlawed in Georgia and other states. In addition, many drivers do not understand the risks of these distractions. Since mentally demanding, voice-based systems have become standard in most vehicles, many people may even think these systems are safe to use while driving. This may leave other motorists at high risk for distraction-related accidents.

The available data suggests that distraction-related accidents may disrupt the lives of many people in Georgia this year. In these cases, victims or their surviving family members might benefit from speaking to an attorney to determine whether legal recourse may be available.