Monday, May 14, 2018
When I was a boy, we lived near two residential intersections that had frequent car crashes. I always had my cheap camera ready to run out and take pictures like I was some kind of news reporter. These were not high-speed accidents, and I don't believe anyone ever got hurt.
One sunny day I heard the loud smack of two cars coming together. I ran out there with my camera in time to hear the driver of a beautifully restored antique car, now significantly dented, putting together an enthusiastic string of cuss words as he walked 'round and 'round his banged-up car. The other driver was trying to explain how a spider had dropped down from somewhere onto his arm, and how he had looked away from the road as he tried to brush the spider off, an explanation that did not reduce the volume of the cussing.
Too many of us get hurt or killed in car wrecks, and drivers taking their eyes off the road is one of the causes. A spider attack is pretty far down my list of risks. For me, it's little boys in the back seats engaged in poking, insulting, hitting, pinching, tickling, or wrestling. That kind of visual distraction is worse than a spider because it focuses the driver on the back seat, not the road in front.
Most of us understand there are risks in taking our eyes off the road. We are not going to read a book. But too many of us do not appreciate the dangerous visual lure of our phones while driving. Checking the GPS, checking a new email, checking a new text, responding to a text with just a "Yes" or a "No," trying to find a name in the contacts, checking a game score--all of these can be accomplished in just a few seconds, but that's a few seconds not looking at the road.
In five seconds a car going 55 mph covers the length of a football field. A lot can happen in 100 yards. And these kinds of distractions are different than a glance at the speedometer. They can lure you in, and the brief glance turns into a focused effort to learn more: "Yay! She had the baby! I wonder what it weighs?"
This risk of taking our eyes off the road is easy for most of us to appreciate. The risk of taking our mind off the road by talking on the phone, whether handheld or hands-free, is more difficult for some of us to appreciate. I find it easier to understand if I go back to something visual: reading a book. When my boys or my wife are reading, I know that a loud clap of thunder or a banging on the door would get their attention. Asking them a question in a normal tone of voice often does not. Are they being rude? Maybe sometimes, but most of the time their brains are accomplishing their primary chore at the time: reading the book.
At our house I have personal experience with this human trait almost every day. Why then is it harder for me to accept that if my brain's primary task is participating in a phone call, an auditory experience, my brain may decrease its focus on visual stimuli? But that's what research shows happens.
At least three things can happen, and none of them are good. First, I can experience what's called "inattention blindness." I am sitting in the car looking down the road, but looking at something is not the same as processing a visual stimuli and actually seeing it. It is as if I put on blinders like a farm horse: What I actually see and process is reduced. I do not "see" what is outside those blinders even though I am looking straight ahead. My brain is hearing a voice or voices on the phone, thinking about responding, processing the information heard, and maybe feeling emotion either good or bad brought on by the conversation. Seeing what's ahead of me has become secondary to the phone call.
A second effect that can occur is a slowed response to events occurring in front of me. As I listen and talk on the phone, I see when a truck tire in front of me blows apart, and I will process that information and respond appropriately. The problem is that the time required to process the information and make the decision takes me longer when I am engaged in a phone call. The result is more accidents.
A third effect is an impaired ability to stay in a lane. If I am engaged in a phone call, I am not going to miss a dramatic event that occurs in front of me. But staying in my lane is more nuanced. The information we need to process and react to is much more subtle. I may get away with it thanks to the ability of drivers around me to move over when they see me swerve a bit. Of course they might be on the same call.
In 2015, almost 400,000 people were injured in America due to distracted drivers; 3,477 people died. And these deaths and injuries occur not only to the distracted driver. All are tragedies.
The human brain is a wonderful creation, but it is not an All Powerful Force. It works best if we let it do one important thing at a time.
If we want to drive, let's drive safely. If we want to talk on the phone or check a text, let's pull over.
Vic Snyder is the corporate medical director for external affairs at Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Editorial on 05/14/2018
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