The AAA Foundation has released a new report about distracted driving, one that measures the relative distraction of hand held vs. hands free electronic devices in cars. The study can be found at https://www.aaafoundation.org/sites/default/files/MeasuringCognitiveDistractions.pdf. The unsurprising but well documented conclusion: not much difference in the level of distraction. The gist of the research is that talking on a phone with someone not in the vehicle is distracting, causing what is called “cognitive blindness.” The driver may think he or she is multi-tasking, but human awareness is more of a zero-sum game; when a driver is engaged in conversation requiring any type of thought, it’s not multi-tasking that’s going on, but switching from one task, driving , to another, participating in the conversation. And while drivers are conscious of the distractions when they take their eyes off the road or hands off the wheel, cognitive blindness is insidious because drivers do not comprehend that they are being distracted from the traffic situation.
I recently wrote about distracting electronics and safer teen driving in an op-ed published in the Hartford Courant last month, http://www.courant.com/news/opinion/hc-op-hollister-electronic-devices-should-be-banne-20130531,0,2727873.story. My points for parents: First, electronic distraction of teen drivers adds to the already substantial risks they face, and a zero tolerance family policy for not only texting but use of electronics — yes, easier said than done – is essential. Second, adults who supervise teen drivers need to consider whether they can send an effective message to teen drivers about texting and other distracting behavior when they themselves use more and more distracting elections in their own cars. Third, each state would do well to look at simplifying its electronic distraction laws, which often go on for pages and pages with definitions that try – but fail — to keep up with evolving technology, and are laden with exceptions for things like navigation/GPS and audio, which with the array of buttons and number of steps required in many vehicles are as distracting as texting. In my view, distraction is distraction; pushing buttons and reading screens is mind-off-the-situation, no matter what the device. The new AAA Foundation report seems to provide empirical evidence to support this view.