Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the United States among adolescents, accounting for 1.3 million deaths and 50 million injuries per year. Distracted driving is a major risk factor for many of these accidents, taking a tremendous toll on families and communities, both financially and emotionally. An increasing number of legislative efforts have been put in place to educate the public, reduce the incidence of motor vehicle accidents, and implement new regulatory approaches to prohibit distracted driving. The focus of this report is to investigate human brain activity in response to distraction--particularly during driving, debunk the myth of the brain's ability to multitask, and by extension, the futility of hands-free technologies while driving. This report also aims to increase awareness of the risks and consequences of distracted driving, discuss the problem in relation to texting and driving, and explore possible solutions to put an end to this risky behavior.
The act of driving itself already demands a great amount of focus and concentration from the driver. Adding a cell phone to the picture introduces additional challenges for the brain. Researchers at Monash University's Accident Research Centre have shown that multi-tasking between driving and text messaging increases the mental workload causing higher levels of stress and frustration . For instance, stress is heightened when shifting from driving on a local route to entering a highway or vice versa. Using a phone (checking a text message, posting a Facebook status) contributes to increasing the complexity of the task at hand. This exhausts the brain, weakens the operator’s driving abilities, and compromises the driver’s awareness. In addition to the visual distraction component of typing out a text message or dialing a number into a hand-held device, research from the World Health Organization shows that “there is strong evidence to suggest that the cognitive distraction caused by engaging in a phone conversation is the main cause of a deterioration of driving behavior.” In addition to the visual distraction that texting introduces, the brain is focused on forming sentences and understanding the discussion rather than focusing on the road.
Distracted drivers split their attention between driving and non-driving related tasks. The four main categories of distraction involve visual, physical, auditory, and cognitive distraction—all of which are involved when texting and driving. Visual distraction includes looking away from the road for a task other than driving. Physical distraction involves operating a mobile phone or radio instead of placing both hands on the wheel. Auditory distraction is comprised of responding to a sound such as a ringtone or text message alert. Cognitive distraction consists of reflecting on a non-driving related task, such as processing a conversation or written information.