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Scientific Research Provides a Greater Understanding of Distracted Driving Risks

July 25, 2021

Although most drivers understand that texting or talking on a cell phone behind the wheel is dangerous, fewer people understand the science behind this severe threat to public safety.  Admittedly, the folly associated with taking one’s eyes off the road during a morning commute seems obvious, but this type of activity does not constitute the greatest risk associated with distracted driving.  The more prevalent danger presented by motorists using cell phones is referred to as “recognition error.”  This type of driving behavior encompasses distractions inside and outside the vehicle, inattention, and surveillance deficiencies.

Recognition error constitutes the most prevalent form of human driving mistake, and human error accounts for nearly 90 percent of collisions.  Drivers swerving through traffic, zigzagging between lanes at high rates of speed, surely endanger everyone else on the road, but ordinary people who assume they can pay attention while engaging in other activities cause most crashes.  Despite the notion that humans are good at multi-tasking, we have a limited amount of attention, so splitting it between multiple activities while driving threatens to overwhelm our brain’s ability to perceive and respond to hazards.

The limits on the brain’s ability to focus on chunks of information were determined to be quite limited as far back as a study conducted nearly 70 years ago by cognitive psychologist George Miller.  His research revealed that the mind could only grasp onto approximately seven bits of information at a time, give or take one or two bits of information.  Subsequent research reveals that the mind’s ability to multi-task might be even more limited, with the human capacity to process information being limited to only 3 to 5 bits of information simultaneously.

Researchers at Harvard University conducted an experiment called “The Invisible Gorilla” that illustrates the limits of our ability to perceive and interpret data when faced with multiple sources of stimulus.  Participants in the study watched a video of three people dressed in a black shirt and three people dressed in a white shirt as they passed basketballs between them.  The subjects of the experiment were told to count the number of times the ball was passed.  In the middle of this activity, a gorilla walks across the screen.  Although it might be hard to believe anyone would fail to notice a gorilla walking across the screen, half the participants did not notice the gorilla.  In other words, the subjects looked right at the gorilla, but the limits on their ability to process multiple bits of information essentially rendered the gorilla invisible.  This study reveals both that we do not perceive much of what comes into our field of vision and that people generally do not realize the limits of their ability to process information acquired by their senses.

These limits on the brain’s ability to process information explain why texting drivers perform as poorly on driving simulators as drunk drivers.  People easily grasp why taking their hands off the steering wheel or averting their eyes from the roadway causes accidents. Still, fewer people realize that we can be distracted even when our hands are on the wheel. Our eyes are on the road because our ability to process information can become overextended.  These limitations explain why drivers involved in “deep thoughts” or engaged in conversation with passengers tend to be as distracted as drivers using cell phones.

If you are injured in a collision caused by a distracted driver, an experienced auto accident attorney can help you pursue compensation against the responsible parties and deal with the other driver’s insurance company.

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Category: Auto Accidents

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All information provided by our blogs is general in nature and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Consult a Montlick attorney for details about your unique situation.