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Think You Can Text or Talk while Driving? Your Brain Probably Disagrees

Most people think they can do two things at once but psychological research proves the brain is just not wired to multitask, especially when driving. When the brain is taxed with too many simultaneous actions, it actually performs each one slower. So, for example, while many people may think they can safely talk on the phone and still concentrate fully on the road, science says otherwise.

When drivers become distracted or mentally-taxed it can have disastrous consequences. Every year, according to the World Health Organisation, more than 1.25 million people die from road traffic collisions, and studies show that 94 percent of accidents are caused by driver error.

Experts have identified four major categories of driver distractions that can divert the brain’s attention from the road and often lead to serious accidents1:

1. Visual – anything that causes the driver to take their eyes off the road, like checking a phone or applying make-up

2. Auditory – any sounds that are too loud, such as talking on the phone or listening to music, that prevent the driver from hearing other traffic sounds such as emergency sirens

3. Manual – anything that causes the driver to take one or more hands off the wheel, such as eating or drinking

4. Cognitive – diminished concentration due to things like tiredness, medication or other everyday distractions

It takes a lot of brain power to drive

Different tasks do have a different effect on cognitive load, or the amount of brain power that’s needed. Lying on the beach requires very low levels of concentration. Driving, on the other hand, is a high cognition activity because the conditions change regularly and often at very short notice.

Matt Gerlach is a guy who would know. He’s one of Ford’s most advanced driving instructors, and has spent the past 10 years training engineers to become expert drivers at Ford’s testing centre in Australia.

“I’ve trained hundreds of drivers over the years, and based on my experience, I’d say that just normal road driving uses around 85 percent of your mental load.

Just sending a text message, taking a photo or even just having a conversation with a passenger may not seem very difficult to do but it can overload the brain when someone’s driving – and that’s when accidents happen.”

Traffic authorities in the UAE say that 10 percent of crashes could be linked back to drivers using their mobile phones to browse social media or take videos while driving. This is concerning, given a car travelling at 100 km/h can travel 390 metres in 14 seconds, the average time required to take a selfie. A study in Saudi Arabia2 revealed that 98.2% of drivers admitted to using their mobile phones while driving, and that using a mobile phone while driving was one of the top five causes of accidents in the Kingdom. More than 40% of drivers said that they read at least one text message a day, and 25% admitted sending a text message.

As a highly skilled test driver, part of Gerlach’s job is to push vehicles to the limits of their capability, way beyond what the average driver will ever experience. To do this they also have to push the drivers he’s training to, and often past, the limit of their cognitive load.

“When you’re using 85 percent of your cognitive load to drive, your mind doesn’t have the capacity to do much else. It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re a professional or if you just drive once in a while – if you can begin to understand how much of your brain you’re using just to drive the car, it can help keep your cognitive load in check and make you a safer driver,” adds Gerlach.

What can I do about it?

There are a number of ways all drivers can reduce their chances of driver error:

1. Concentrate just on driving and avoid dangerous distractions when behind the wheel: both experts and the data are clear in their assessment that life threatening dangers to drivers, passengers and pedestrians increase significantly when those behind the wheel divert even a small amount of their focus from the road.

2. Expand your field of vision: “generally people don’t look far enough ahead when they’re driving,” says Gerlach. “They tend to look at the car in front rather than scanning to see what’s happening further ahead. Even with relatively little practice, it’s possible to use your vision to scan a large distance of the road ahead of and beside you, while still seeing everything that’s going on immediately around you.”

3. Avoid driving while drowsy: it’s no secret that mental abilities diminish when fatigued or under the influence of even the mildest medications. Being fully awake and alert when behind the wheel greatly enhances response times.

Distracted Driving by the Numbers:

390: The number of metres you drive in 14 seconds at 100 km/h

94: The percentage of fatal road traffic accidents caused by driver error

37: The percent by which talking on a cell phone reduces the ability to drive

14: The average number of seconds required to take a selfie

1: The number of tasks the human brain can fully focus on at one time

For the Arabic version of the press release, please click here: Arabic

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