Drivers ‘can’t do two things at once’, study finds

08.52 | 23 January 2018 | | 3 comments

A new study has concluded that distractions impair driving performance – irrespective of the driver’s level of ability and experience.

The study – carried out by psychologists from Goldsmiths University of London – found that both cognitive tasks (i.e. counting backwards) and combined cognitive/physical tasks (i.e. texting) ‘tended to impair drivers’ performance, irrespective of their ability’.

The study was commissioned by East Riding of Yorkshire Council and Safer Roads Humber in a bid to discover what makes young drivers ‘so vulnerable’, and how they can be ‘advised and protected’.

The study used eye tracking technology to obtain an ‘accurate, real time representation’ of where drivers were looking in a range of driving scenarios.

The aim was to explore how drivers of varying experience and training differ in how they view the roads as they drive, and how distractions affect their behaviour.

In the months preceding the study, a call for volunteers was promoted via local media (local papers and radio), on social media and on TV.

This communications activity generated a strong response, with more than 300 people from the East Riding area volunteering to participate, more than 40 of whom took part in the full study.

Three groups of drivers were recruited: inexperienced (less than four years’ driving experience), experienced (20+ years of driving) and advanced (professional drivers or people with an advanced driving course certificate).

Participants were asked to drive a specific route in a dual controlled car while at the same time watching selected clips from the DVSA’s Hazard Perception Test. Specific mental distractions – such as counting backwards and texting – were used to simulate the effect of distractions while driving.

The study’s other key findings include:

  • Experienced drivers tend to look further ahead compared to novice drivers, anticipating bends and scanning further ahead on the road.
  • Drivers scan less when thinking about something complicated: performing a demanding task while driving resulted in a tendency for participants to have a ‘less distributed gaze pattern’, with less visual attention to peripheral areas.
  • Some of the inexperienced drivers tended to be overconfident: when asked to indicate how well they thought that they drove compared to their peers, novice drivers tended to score more positively than experienced/advanced drivers. They were also less likely to say that the distraction tasks affected their driving.

East Riding of Yorkshire Council and Safer Roads Humber will now use the video outputs from the study in educational and outreach behaviour change activities.

The project team has plans to use a similar methodology to explore cycling and powered two-wheeler user behaviour.

Click here to download a summary of the study results.


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    In some circumstances the giving of greater and of safer space may to some degree help mitigate the time taken in a minor and temporary distraction.

    bob craven
    Agree (5) | Disagree (0)

    Unfortunately the vast majority of drivers will not consider changing a CD or turning the heater controls or indicators or lights on as a major distraction or as a distraction at all and therefore under those circumstances they will not consider that it will make them a more dangerous driver.

    I am not defending those actions but would point out that distractions of one shape of another can be something of a continuous circumstance. There are many of them and they can come one after the other. Being distracted is something that we have all done in the past and are all committing still in one way or another but we do not considered ourselves to be any the less a safer driver. However if greater space was given to other vehicles, particularly the one in front, then some minor distractions (not phone usage) could be committed to without creating the same degree of danger. With more space comes greater vision and more time and space to stop or slow in. This may to some degree mitigate the danger that may be caused by such a minor and temporary distraction.

    bob craven
    Agree (7) | Disagree (2)

    What next? Perhaps a study to find out where bears defecate, or the religion of the Pope? Given that this study appears to tell us very little that we either did not know, or suspect to be true, wouldn’t the money have been better spent on enforcement of the laws regarding phone use.

    David, Suffolk
    Agree (8) | Disagree (4)

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