Study: Cognitive distractions pose serious risk for Colorado motorists

Cognitive, or mental, distractions are among the most hazardous for drivers, and may contribute to an increased likelihood of causing serious car crashes.

When people in Denver, and elsewhere, think of the leading causes of motor vehicle collisions, drunk driving and speeding frequently come to mind. Often overlooked, however, is the danger that distractions, including talking and texting while driving, pose for motorists. In fact, Distraction.gov reports that approximately 424,000 were injured in distraction-related wrecks in 2013. During that same year, more than 3,100 people were killed in such crashes.

Common driver distractions

For drivers, any behaviors that compete for their attention may be considered distractions. This may include any number of activities, such as text messaging, eating, talking on the phone, grooming or primping, and changing the radio. Negligent drivers who engage in such distractions may not be able to adjust to road conditions and hazards, and thus, may have an increased likelihood of causing auto accidents.

Generally, distractions may be categorized into three primary types - manual, visual and cognitive. A manual distraction is a behavior that takes a driver's hands off the steering wheel. Visual distractions are those activities that take motorists' eyes off the road. A cognitive distraction is an activity that takes a driver's mind off the task of driving.

Measuring the impact of cognitive distractions on drivers

Of the primary types of distractions, cognitive, or mental distractions, are the least researched. However, the American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety conducted a study to glean an understanding of how such distractions affect motorists. In order to accomplish this, the study established a scale to measure the effects cognitive distractions.

For the study, participants were asked to perform a number of tasks in a lab, a driving simulator and an instrumented vehicle. The researchers then used electronic sensors, cameras and other equipment to collect data as the participants carried out these exercises. To determine the low end of the scale, researchers monitored participants as they drove without any distractions. The high end of the scale was established by observing participants driving while performing complex math and verbal problems. The researchers also asked the participants to perform other activities while driving, including listening to an audiobook and to the radio, talking to a passenger, talking on hand-held and hands-free cellphones, and using speech-to-text technologies.

Study shows cognitive distractions are dangerous

Based on the study's findings, drivers do not have to have their eyes off the road or hands off the wheel in order to be distracted. In fact, the study showed that hands-free cellphone options, such as speech-to-text technologies, were among the most distracting tasks performed by participants during the study. Overall, cognitive distractions were found to cause increased mental workloads for drivers. As a result, they experienced the following:

• Missed visual cues

• Narrowed fields of vision

• Compromised brain function

• Slowed reaction times

Thus, using hands-free devices may not be an adequate option for preventing distraction-related motor vehicle collisions. Accordingly, avoiding all types of distractions while operating automobiles is the best way for people to ensure their own safety, as well as that of those they share the road with.

Work with an attorney

When Coloradoans are involved in distracted driving crashes, they may suffer serious injuries, which require medical treatment. Consequently, they may be subject to undue medical expenses. Depending on the circumstances, howe ver, the distracted motorists may be held responsible for these, and other, damages. As such, it may benefit those who have experienced situations such as this to seek legal guidance. An attorney may explain their options, and help them understand their rights for pursuing financial compensation.