It’s Past Time to Think About Cognitive Distraction

It’s Past Time to Think About Cognitive Distraction

When you think of common ways drivers are distracted on the road, you probably think of talking or texting on mobile devices, eating, reading, or perhaps even putting on makeup or shaving. It’s easy to recognize that these risky behaviors are distractions. There are even laws on the books in several states that ban these sorts of distractions—particularly hand-held mobile phone use—so drivers know better than to do these things while driving (even if they do them on occasion anyway). Hands-free mobile phone use, on the other hand . . . that’s okay, right?

Distracted driving causes an alarming number of deaths and injuries on America’s roads each year, and it has proven to be a hard problem to solve. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say that 2,800 people died because of distracted driving in 2018 alone. And distraction is particularly dangerous for vulnerable road users; 400 pedestrians and 77 bicyclists were killed that year.

The United States has made huge improvements in reducing the number of deaths seen on our roadways since the 1960s and 1970s, but, over the past decade, we’ve stagnated in lowering the number of fatalities even further. We’ve greatly improved vehicle and road safety as well as seatbelt law adherence, and we’ve cut drunk driving deaths in half. But distracted driving continues to be an ever-problematic issue on our nation’s roadways. Even my very own friends—knowing what I do for a living—have recently tried to have calls or video chats with me while they were driving! 

Although, like all safety issues, we need to address distracted driving awareness and prevention year round, for 1 month each year, advocates turn up the focus. That’s how critical it is to saving lives. Vice Chairman Landsberg recently wrote a blog in recognition of Distracted Driving Awareness Month. A few months ago, I wrote a blog about my own story of being in a crash caused by a distracted driver. I pointed out that, short of full cell phone bans, drivers can make hands-free calls through Bluetooth, which is still a cognitive distraction.

Why is that important?

Even when your eyes are on the road, simple cognitive distractions can impair your driving performance and diminish your reaction time. Many people don’t realize that cognitive distractions while driving can be like driving while impaired—both reduce your ability to react.

Nearly a decade ago, the NTSB issued a recommendation to all 50 states and the District of Columbia, calling for a ban on all nonemergency use of portable electronic devices for all drivers, which would include prohibiting hands-free cell phone use. Ever since then, we have been advocating for states to ban cell phones while driving, and “Eliminate Distractions” has rightfully been on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements since 2013. Although 48 states have banned texting while driving, no state has banned hands-free cell phone use. 

The National Safety Council and AAA, along with others, remind us that hands-free isn’t risk free. We need to think about and address cognitive distraction and its harmful consequences. When we’re behind the wheel, let’s make sure we keep our families and our roads safe by focusing on the primary task at hand—driving safely.