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Distracted driving: texting and beyond

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By Janet Creaser

teen.jpgMany drivers are likely to associate distracted or inattentive driving with cell phone usage, such as making calls or texting. Distraction due to calling and texting gets a lot of media attention and has inspired lawmakers to take notice. In Minnesota, texting is illegal for all drivers and making cell phone calls of any types, such as using a hands-free link through a vehicle or Bluetooth device, is illegal for teen drivers under the age of 18. However, cell phone use is just one of the more obvious forms of driver distraction. Driver distraction can be visual, cognitive, manual, or a combination of all three.

Texting involves all three forms of distraction: visual (looking at the phone and not the road), cognitive (mentally composing the message instead of processing roadway information), and manual (manipulating the phone keyboard instead of the steering wheel). This is why texting is considered to be a significant risk factor for drivers and why laws banning texting are becoming increasingly common in the U.S. Other tasks that involve visual and/or manual distraction include interacting with the radio, a navigation system, a mobile device such as an iPod, reading, eating and drinking. Although not all forms of distraction are equally distracting, all can be dangerous under certain circumstances.

Cognitive distraction can be more difficult for drivers to identify. Some forms of cognitive distraction include driving while preoccupied with other thoughts due to worry or stress, or when drivers end up “lost in thought.” Daydreaming or “being lost in thought” is estimated to be a factor in about 4% of crashes. Cognitive distraction can also occur during conversations with passengers or while interacting with a speech-activated interface in a vehicle (e.g., voice commands to make a call or send a text). When a parent turns around to talk to a child in the backseat, they are visually and cognitively distracted. In many cases involving cognitive distraction, a driver’s eyes are on the road but his or her mind is not, potentially resulting in impaired response times to driving events or hazards.

Driving researchers, practitioners, and safety agencies are all focused on better understanding the impact distracted or inattentive driving has on crash rates in order to identify countermeasures to reduce or prevent it. Distracted driving has become such a significant concern that the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) has set up Distraction.gov, a website devoted to distracted driving. And here at the University of Minnesota, our HumanFIRST Laboratory investigates causes of driver distraction and ways to mitigate them.   


Janet Creaser is a research fellow at the University's HumanFIRST Laboratory and a CTS Research Scholar. Her research interests include examining driver distraction and driver responses to new road safety interventions, the development of driver support systems, and the effect of age on driver behavior, including the unique differences and needs of teen and elderly drivers.

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