Could distractions make us better drivers?

11.23 | 17 February 2011 | | 2 comments

An article in the Daily Mail earlier this week suggests that distractions such as talking on a mobile phone or changing the radio could make us safer drivers.

The article featured new research from Kansas University which suggests that drivers who engage in a ‘secondary task’ pay more attention to the road as some distractions alleviate boredom and increase focus.

In a driving simulator 45 participants drove for 30 minutes while talking on the phone. Researchers tested their attentiveness and short-term memory by introducing obstacles.

Some drivers were given a secondary task throughout the drive, some performed an additional task at the end of the trip, and some had no concurrent task.

Drivers’ level of attention was gauged by their ability to stay in their lane, react in time to avoid an intruder car, avoid radical steering maneuvers to maintain a steady course and accurately remember the signs they passed.

The results appear to indicate that drivers who had to perform a concurrent task in the latter portion of the trip were more likely to stay in their lane and were less likely to make mistakes, compared with drivers who had either a continuous or no additional task.

These findings suggest that as driving becomes monotonous and drivers’ minds drift from the road, strategically introducing an additional task, such as talking on the phone or listening to the radio, might improve attention and stability.

But, in an almost contradictory way, the authors warned: “Although these results suggest improvements in driving performance, there is still a degree of risk involved.”

Click here to read the full Daily Mail report. 


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    How about simply improving driver training? We know that one way we do this is by using commentary as in police or advanced training. If we find our concentration is waning simply start a verbal or “in head” commentary to lift the horizon and heighten observation. Once you’re more alert to actual danger you can start to anticipate potential danger and allow appropriate space and time to deal with realtime situations. This is multitasking but it coalesces into one activity – safe driving.

    David, Wirral
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    The problem with research is does it have value in the real world as you can determine some outcomes by the way questions and tasks are asked or performed.

    “In the jargon of this tech-savvy age, it has been dubbed “iPod oblivion” or the Ipodestrian and Australian police say it can be lethal for pedestrians and cyclists, alike.

    It is a near trance-like state people can apparently enter while using mobile phones, MP3 players or electronic personal organisers.” BBC website Friday 18th Feb 2011.

    Maybe we should let motorist use phones and stop pedestrians.
    Research in Western Washington University in 2009 suggests our problem is with pedestrians when in their research only 8% of people on a cellphone remembered a unicycling clown.
    Seriously if driving is becoming boring then we should consider removing so called drivers aids like power steering automatic gears and cruise control.
    Maybe the real answer is to keep them in but to fit all cars with intellegent heads up dashboard displays that can keep the mind concentrated on the task in hand.

    Peter Wilson, Westminster
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