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There’s a Science Behind Distracted Driving?

Disclaimer – I have a material connection because I received a gift or sample of a product for consideration in preparing to write this content. All opinions stated within are my own.

As some of you know, I attended the Lifesavers Conference in Denver on behalf of Toyota recently, a conference focused on driving safety for everyone.  Needless to say, there was an entire track of workshops focused on teen driving safety.  This was the one that intrigued me the most and, without a doubt, had the best attendance.  It was standing room only.

One of the most powerful presentations came from Dr. Paul Atchley from the Department of Psychology at the University of Kansas.  What I learned was pretty amazing; our brains actually get a boost of dopamine when we post, text or pin.  Yup, you got it – we actually get a high when we are connected to our friends online.  And, that rush is so powerful, it often overrides our self-acknowledgement that texting and driving can be deadly.

Here are a few other facts I learned from Dr. Atchley’s presentation:

  • By the time someone is 16 years-old, they have been using a mobile device as their primary means of communication for 8 years
  • Teens are twice as likely to text a friend in the past week than talk to them on the phone or in person
  • Someone who is texting and driving is at as great a disadvantage as an 85 year-old adult with Alzheimer’s
  • Teens report that in taking away their opportunity to text, their self-esteem goes down and they feel a sense of isolation.

As  Dr. Atchley pointed out, our brain’s best coping mechanism is self-deception.   We think we understand the risk of distracted driving, we overestimate our ability and, when we’re driving, we think we see more than we do.  As an example, he showed a video in which we, the audience, felt like we were driving a car down a highway.  Halfway through the video a building on the side of the road in the distance disappears.  When he asked us to raise our hand when we noticed something change, the majority of us never saw it!   The reality is that when we’re driving our attention shrinks to the width of the steering wheel and the depth of as far as the front bumper.

What was most interesting is that cognitive distraction is equally as problematic as visual distraction (glancing down at a text.)  As way of proof he asked us all to think of someone who’s talking on their phone as they’re walking down a busy city block or in an airport.  The majority of the time their eyes are focused straight ahead.  This is the same when we’re driving and even talking hands free on a phone.  Our cognitive attention is focused on the conversation, not on the road or peripherally for a jogger or a car pulling out of a driveway.    One of the most popular arguments people give is that talking hands-free on their phone while driving is no different than talking to someone in the car.  But, as Dr. Atchley explained, if you’re talking to someone else in the car, chances are they’ll see a danger ahead and stop talking whereas the person on the phone has no idea what’s going on while you’re driving.

Here’s a little test to prove that cognitively, it’s almost impossible to focus on two different things at once:

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