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Looking but Not Seeing

Have you ever been cut off by a driver on a cell phone? You may have attributed the danger move to the driver holding the steering wheel with just one hand. This line of thought has led six cities to ban hand-held cell phone use. Those bans are good in so far as they limit cell phone use while driving, but an increasing amount of research shows that much of the risk in talking on a cell phone while driving is cognitive, not just manual. A driver’s hand may be off the wheel, but more importantly, their mind is off the road.

To draw attention to this aspect of distracted driving, the National Safety Council has released a white paper on cognitive distraction: “Understanding the Distracted Brain: Why driving while using hand-free cellphones is risky behavior.” They conclude that education, policies, laws and technology must aim to prevent both handheld and hands-free cell phone use by drivers.

The bottom line is that drivers talking on cell phones may look at you but not see you. Here’s chilling section of the paper:

Inattention Blindness – Vision is the most important sense we use for safe driving. It’s the source of the majority of information when driving. Yet, drivers using hands-free and handheld cell phones have a tendency to “look at” but not “see” objects. Estimates indicate drivers using cell phones look at but fail to see up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment. Cognitive distraction contributes to a withdrawal of attention from the visual scene, where all the information the driver sees is not processed. This may be due to…how our brains compensate for receiving too much information by not sending some visual information to the working memory. When this happens, drivers are not aware of the filtered information and cannot act on it.

For more on distracted driving, read our Biycling Advocate’s Guide and fact sheet.

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