NSC looks inside ‘distracted brain’

distracted driving brain study imageDrivers talking on cell phones often enter a state of “inattention blindness” in which they fail to see up to 50 percent of what’s ahead of them, according to a new report from the National Safety Council.

The NSC once again makes the case against driving and using cell phones — including those with hands-free devices — this time backed by about 30 research studies. The NSC estimates that 25 percent of the U.S. crashes in 2008 involved cell phone use.

“Driver distractions have joined alcohol and speeding as leading factors in fatal and serious injury crashes,” the NSC said.

The white paper is called “Understanding the Distracted Brain.”

The NSC report maintains there is no such thing as “multitasking,” and that activities such as driving and talking on a phone require the brain to switch back and forth between these tasks. Researchers say there is a “reaction-time switching cost,” in which the brain changes its focus.

With cell phones and driving, “two usually unrelated activities become interrelated when a person is behind the wheel. These tasks compete for our brain’s information processing resources. There are limits to our mental workload.”

This likely explains the University of Utah study that found drunken drivers were better at reacting to traffic events than those who were on cell phones.

The NSC concludes, in part: “We know from other traffic safety issues — impaired driving, safety belts, speeding -– that consistent enforcement of laws is the single most important effective strategy in changing behavior.

“Education, policies, laws and technology must address the prevention of both handheld and hands-free cell phone use by drivers.”

Read the National Safety Council white paper (PDF).

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