Cognitive Processes of Texting While Driving

Texting and Driving.  Every driver knows it’s a “no-no” on our roadways and there’s a reason that it’s banned in 41 states; it’s dangerous, fatal, and takes a driver’s focus off of the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent-at 55 mph-of driving the length of an entire football field, blind.  And if that imagery isn’t enough, how about this statistic; according to the U.S. Government Website for Distracted Driving, text messaging creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted.  As drivers, we think that if we can text and drive, talk and drive, eat and drive, or even read important e-mails while driving, we think we are “multi-tasking”.  Instead, what we are doing is putting our lives at risk, as well as everyone else’s.  Our minds should be focused on the road and nothing else.  Texting and driving is just as dangerous as drinking while driving and many drivers would never imagine attempting such a dangerous and unlawful action.

Texting and Driving: What’s REALLY going on in our head?

Driving, as with most activities, requires visual, manual and cognitive attention.  Texting requires the same kind of attention, but the brain can’t do both, safely, at one time.  When you, as a driver, switch your attention to a text message, visually you are taking your eyes off of the road.  Manually, you are taking your eyes off of the wheel (to grab the phone, push a button to read the text, push button to responds).  Cognitively, you are taking your mind off of driving.  When a driver hears the beep of a text alert, the brain becomes distracted and almost immediately, the driver’s cognitive attention is altered.

The brain (and the way it responds) works on sensory information.  All sensory information, such as sight, sound, and thoughts, must be committed to short-term memory before it can be acted on.  However, short-term memory can only hold basic information for a short period of time (a few seconds), but in order to get information to short-term memory the brain must prioritize and process information.  This stage is called “encoding”, which is the step in which the brain selects what to pay attention to.  When a driver receives a text, the brain’s encoding has been negatively affected by the distraction.  While the brain works to filter out information, by prioritizing, there are some decisions which are conscious and within a driver’s control while others are unconscious.  If a driver chooses to respond to a text message the brain “overloads” and is unable to alert the driver to pay attention to the road, often putting the driver and others at great risk of an accident or other potentially dangerous situations.  Simply put, once a driver chooses to respond to a text message, while driving, the cognitive attention required for driving is impaired.

What about Hands-free devices?

Many drivers know that texting and driving is unsafe and as a result they opt to use what they see as “safer” options, such as hands-free devices.  While a hands-free device allows drivers to keep their visual and manual attention on the road, cognitive attention is still impaired, taking a driver’s attention off of the road and increasing the risk of an accident.

A safe and attentive driver silences the cell phone, avoids all distractions, and focuses on the road.  When you’re driving down the road at 55 mph, the landscape changes quickly and danger can happen suddenly.  When you are focused on a text and not the road your reaction time, in the event of a potentially dangerous situation, will be slower.  Drive first and text later!