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Distracted Driving: Sometimes It's All in Your Head

It's nearly impossible not to drive without distractions in a multi-tasking oriented society. We're in a time-crunch these days, with work time bleeding into family time and the increasing feeling that if we're not constantly connected to what is happening now, we are left out. It isn't just what we are doing that can distract us from the task of driving, our mental state can have an impact as well.

We can become preoccupied with a stressful event at work while driving home or drift into thoughts about making dinner. Those cognitive activities negatively affect our focus on the road, yet still do not have the same impact as texting or other physical activities.

Texting Behind The Wheel Is Dangerous

It seems everyone in the country is texting, and the numbers reflect that. Official U.S. government statistics show that in 2014, mobile communications users sent 169.3 billion texts per month. The National Highway Traffic Safety Association statistics show 10% of all fatal accidents on the road involved distracted drivers. Some of those crashes involved more than one distracted driver. 

Texting Is Not The Only Distraction That Can Cause Accidents

These fatalities didn't just involve texting, though the practice of using mobile technology receives the lion's share of media attention these days. What about what happens when you simply aren't paying attention to the road like you should?

Researchers from two universities conducted a comparative study, observing the behaviors of drivers when they are distracted mentally or by texting. The study asked volunteer drivers to drive a stretch of highway four times. On one trial, the researchers asked drivers questions to challenge their thinking. On another run, the drivers received questions designed to elicit an emotional response. Then the drivers were texting while driving. A control test allowed the drivers to drive under normal conditions.

The results of the study showed that when compared to driving under normal circumstances, the drivers with distractions showed diminished handling of the vehicle. However, the drivers who were texting evinced unsafe driving, veering out of the correct driving lanes and much poorer handling.

The researchers proposed that a kind of "sixth sense" enabled the drivers who weren't texting to drive more safely. A part of the brain automatically corrects problems when you are experiencing emotional distress. However, the function needs to have visual sensory input to be able to properly correct performing a task. The texting drivers, moving their eyes away from the road to their phones, wouldn't have that constant visual input.

In short, the study revealed it pays to keep your eyes on the road. However, basic losses of concentration can negatively affect your ability to drive safely. Actively concentrating appears just as important as avoiding modern day distractions.

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