There are countless distractions for the modern day driver, ranging from hyperactive children in the backseat to cell phones consistently beeping from incoming texts. Researchers at the University of Houston and Texas A&M Transportation Institute set out to find just how dangerous these distractions can be.
The study examined how drivers coped with distractions such as emotions, texts, and daydreaming. Although texting and driving and its associated danger has been observed in many studies, the researchers noted that little research has been conducted on the affects these other stressors have on the driver. However, results did indicate that texting while behind the wheel may be the most dangerous form of distraction.
Interestingly, the scientists discovered a “sixth sense” in the drivers who were behind the wheel while emotional or absentminded, which allowed them to navigate the road securely. However, this “sixth sense” was not experienced by the individuals distracted by their phones, leading them to navigate the road in an unsafe manner.
The study was conducted on 59 individuals who were asked to navigate the road under 4 conditions: normal conditions, driving while asked challenging questions, driving while asked emotional questions, and driving while distracted by text messages. Under each condition, the researchers measured several conditions such as the amount of sweat underneath the nose of the driver, which indicated their stress level, how frazzled their steering was, and if the driver drifted out of his or her lane.
Results demonstrated that all types of distractions led to increased perinatal perspiration and increased jitters. When asked emotionally charged or challenging questions, the drivers continued on a straight course and did not drift off the road. However, texting led the drivers to swerve out of their lane.
The head researchers of the study, Ioannis Pavlidis, PhD, and Robert Wunderlich, speculate that the driver’s ability to maintain a straight course when asked emotional or cognitive questions is due to the involvement of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the brain that is responsible for the “fight or flight” response. According to Pavlidis, it is likely that corrective action comes from a center of the brain, which is likely to be the ACC, when a driver is distracted while performing a routine task. Pavlidis also mentions “when this distraction is purely mental, this corrective mechanism works well.”
In order for the ACC to be successful, however, hand and eye coordination are necessary. According to Wunderlich, "It appears that an eye-hand feedback loop is needed for the brain to be able to accomplish these corrections." Yet when a driver looks at their phone to text, this eye-hand feedback loop is interrupted, thus making it more dangerous to text and drive.
For more information on the dangers of distracted driving and texting behind the wheel, visit the official U.S. Government’s website for distracted driving at http://www.distraction.gov/index.html.
Pavlidis, I., Dcosta, M., Taamneh, S., Manser, M., Ferris, T., Wunderlich, R., Akleman, E., & Tsiamyrtzis, P. (2016 May 12). Dissecting Driver Behaviors Under Cognitive, Emotional, Sensorimotor, and Mixed Stressors. Scientific Reports, 6. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/articles/srep25651
Mulpeter, K. (2016 Aug 1). Texting while driving might derail your brain’s ‘autopilot’. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2016/05/26/health/driving-texting-sixth-sense/index.html