What are Cognitive Distractions While Driving?

14 Jan 2019

No matter how great a driver you are, whether your drive as a profession or personally, at some point you will experience a moment of “mental checking out” — meaning you’ll no longer be fully focusing on your driving.

In moments like these, drivers aren’t fully aware of their surroundings. They can easily miss that debris in the road or that oncoming car, leading to a crash and injuries or worse, death. Experts refer to this “mental checking out” as a cognitive distraction.

Mental or cognitive distraction is where you’re driving, but your mind is not focused on driving. You could be talking to another passenger or daydreaming which puts you at risk. Even listening to the radio can put you at risk since the audio can take your focus away from your overall surroundings and your driving.

Some common cognitive distractions while driving may include:

  • Thinking about something that’s upsetting
  • Daydreaming
  • Talking to another passenger
  • Road rage
  • Being under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs

Even drowsy driving may also be considered a type of cognitive distraction; however, it’s usually regarded as its own issue.

Cognitive distractions might not seem as risky as actually taking your hands off the wheel or eyes off the road. But, the National Safety Council (NSC) did some research that showed cognitively distracted drivers are at risk for a variety of performance issues.

The NSC review more than 30 studies involving cognitively distracted drivers to reach this conclusion. While these studies focused on individuals who were using hands-free or hand-held cell phones, it’s likely these findings apply to those engaged in other mentally distracting tasks. These studies showed these drivers demonstrated the following serious impairments:

  • Blindness to their surroundings: According to researchers, around 50 percent of the information in the immediate environment of a cognitively distracted driver, including traffic control devices and other vehicles, goes unnoticed.
  • Slow reaction times: One study showed even legally drunk drivers, in terms of response times, out-performed cognitively distracted drivers.
  • Reduced activity in certain areas of the brain normally active while driving: For example, the areas of the brain overseeing navigation, spatial processing and visual information processing show less activity when drivers listen to language.

The drivers may not even realize how long these adverse effects last.

While drivers may legally engage in various types of cognitive distraction, like using voice-activated technology and talking on hands-free cell phones, it could still result in cognitive distractions. If you’re a fleet manager, consider discussing the potential of cognitive distractions with your drivers. In addition, utilizing a GPS fleet tracking can help alert you to other driving hazards, like speeding, aggressive driving and hard braking.

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