Causative factors of distracted driving – use of cell phones while driving

Recognition that cognitive factors play an important role in causing accident prone distractions has led to an increased concern for the use of cell phones while driving (White, 2010). While manufacturers have tried to address other distraction types – visual and manual – by developing hands-free devices for use in cars, both hand held and hands-free devices remain prominent sources of cognitive distraction in drivers. One of the risks associated with the use of either of these cell phones is inattention blindness – “a tendency to ‘look at’ but not ‘see’ objects” (NSC, 2010a, p. 9). Inattention blindness has been found to affect drivers to the extent of not being unconscious of up to a half of the information encountered in their driving environment (NSC, 2010a). Such inattention blindness is a highly potent cause of crashes since it tends to divert attention from the visual scene hence acting as if there is a visual distraction since it renders the driver’s minds incapable of processing all the input it is subjected to in a timely fashion (NSC, 2010a). Since inattention blindness affects drivers’ scope of view (visual scanning), the driver could completely miss out significant events in the environment or detect them too late when taking appropriate measures to avert a crash proves inadequate (NSC, 2010a).

A second risk of cellphone use during driving is lowering response and reaction times (Horrey, & Wickens, 2006; Strayer, Drews, & Crouch, 2006). Response time is a combination of reaction and movement times (NSC, 2010a). Whereas reaction time refers to the time dedicated in processing input from the driving environment, movement time refers to the time taken for activation of muscular activity to generate the correct response in a timely manner (NSC, 2010a). In one of the studies, using 30 participants (25 male and 15 female) Strayer, et al. (2006, p.381) aimed at assessing the “the relative impairment associated with conversing on a cellular phone while driving.” Using a high-fidelity stimulator, the study compared both the effects of driving under alcohol and driving while using a cell with baseline (control) group (Strayer, et al., 2006). The results of the study indicated that both alcohol and cell phone use influenced driving performance but on different perspectives. While alcohol was associated with aggressive driving necessitating application of a higher force for braking, cell phone use delayed the braking responses of drivers increasing their risk of getting into a crash (Slayer, et al., 2006). Horrey and Wickens (2006) had also identified reaction time tasks to be the tasks that were most adversely affected by cell phone use while driving.

A third risk associated with cell phone use while driving is keeping track of the lane one is driving in. Though this was not as adversely affected as the response tasks, due to its less cognitive engagement (NSC, 2010a), the study by Horrey and Wickens (2006) identified tracking (lane keeping) to be affected by cell phone use though in a subtle manner than the response times. The risk posed by cell phone use with respect to lane tracking could be aggravated when driving in congested lanes at high speeds since the margin of error in such cases is very small (NSC, 2010a). Though other studies have identified the driving risk posed by cell phone use to be lower than those presented by the above studies, these latter studies have been questioned due to limitations such as the small numbers of observed crashes, inability to collect all near-crash occurrences, and inability to observe and measure distraction resulting from cognitive events (NSC, 2010a). The health risks of use of the cell phones while driving however can be buttressed by a study that found out the use of mobile phones while driving to increase the probability of crashing by fourfold irrespective of use or lack thereof of a hands-free device (MKcEvoy, et al., 2005).

To gauge these causative aspects of distraction further views were sought from the three professionals interviewed. Some of the factors mentioned to constitute causes of distracted driving identified in the interview were cell phone use, eating while driving, attending to children, engaging in heated debates with passengers and viewing scenery. A point of note was that just as in the literature presented the use of cellphones while driving was noted to be a significant driver distraction source by all the interviewees. The traffic police officer for instance pointed out that most of the drivers whom he had encountered not attentive to the changes in the traffic lights changes at a junction were most likely to be using the cellphone. The NSC officer confirmed such observation by noting that most of their statistics indicated that a significant number of accidents that have occurred in recent years were attributable to the wide spread use of cell phones while driving. For the nursing professional the cell phone usage while driving was a trend that needed to be controlled with the enhancements in cellphones such as internet enabled phones and the effect of social webs that have developed addictions for their users being a potential for increasing cell phone use while driving. In conclusion on the causes of distraction the traffic officer noted that for teenage drivers, presence of peers posed as great a risk as cell phone use since they could engage in dangerous games that distracts the driver via all the three forms. Go to part 5 here.

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