Cognitive Distraction While Multitasking in the Automobile


Driver distraction is a significant source of motor-vehicle accidents. Most of the time we take driving for granted. But operating an automobile is the riskiest activity that most readers of this chapter engage in on a regular basis. In fact, motor-vehicle crashes were the leading cause of accidental deaths in the US in 2008 and are the leading cause of all deaths for people between the age of 1 and 35.

In fact, in 2010, the NSC estimated that the 28% of all crashes on the roadway were caused by the use of a cell phone to talk, dial, or text while driving (National Safety Council White Paper, 2010).

A Framework for Understanding the Sources of Driver Distraction

There are three sources for driver's distraction: visual, manual and cognitive. These three sources of distraction can operate independently; that is, interacting with different devices can result in competition from one, two, or all the three sources. There are two additional factors that are important to consider in discussions concerning driver distraction and crash risk. The first factor is the duration of an activity that is concurrently performed while driving. For example, changing a radio station may place demands on visual and manual resources, but the duration of that impairment is relatively short (e.g., 5 s or so).The second factor to consider is the exposure rate of an activity. The more drivers that engage in a distracting activity, the greater the impact to public safety.

The cell phone is a relatively modern invention that has been in common use for less than 20 years. Over this period, use has skyrocketed, and as of 2010, more than 90% of the US population now carries a cell phone. Using a cell phone while driving has become commonplace, with 85% of drivers reporting that they use a cell phone while concurrently operating a motor vehicle (National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, 2006). And, as mentioned above, current estimates suggest that at any time during the day, more than 10% of drivers on the roadway talk on their cell phone. Even more alarming is that 2 out of 10 drivers who use a cell phone report that they have bumped into a person or object because they were distracted (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2010).

Do Cell-Phone Conversations Increase the Crash Risk?

In one study, were observed over 1700 drivers as they approached a residential intersection with four-way stop signs. We determined through observation whether the drivers were or were not using their cell phone as they approached the intersection and whether they came to a complete stop (as required by law) before proceeding through the intersection. From the observation was shown that from 1638 drivers who weren't using their phone, 1286 of them stopped at the intersection. Meanwhile from 110 drivers who were using their phone, only 28 stopped at the intersection. Observational studies have a high validity. After all, it is real driving and if a cell phone is in use, it is a real conversation. It is possible that those drivers who regularly use a cell phone are willing to engage in more risky activities and that this increase in risk taking also leads drivers to engage in more risky driving behaviors such as running stop signs.

The studies go further in examining the differences in driving performance of the hand-held cell-phone driver with that of the hands-free cell-phone driver. The analyses show that the performance of drivers engaged in a cell-phone conversation differs significantly from that of the non distracted driver and that there is no safety advantage for hands-free over hand-held cell phones. Analysis indicated that Reaction Time in each of the dual-task conditions differed significantly from the single-task condition at each decile of the distribution, whereas the distributions for hand-held and hands-free conditions did not differ significantly across the deciles. There is no safety advantage for hands-free over hand-held cell phones during the driving. 

In Albania during 2010 there have been 1564 motor-vehicle crashes where there were injured 2069 people and 353 people did not survive the accident. In 2013 the number of crashes on roadway was 2056 where 273 people did not survive the accident. From government annual reporting we can say that the main causes of motor-vehicle crashes are the missing signs on the road, not obeying the roadbook and the driver distraction.