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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that distracted driving claimed 3,477 lives in 2015 alone. The agency’s definition of distraction encompasses anything that diverts the driver’s attention away from driving, including talking or texting on a cell phone, eating or drinking, and fiddling with the entertainment or navigation systems.

Now a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Houston and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, reports on how drivers react to these different types of distractions. The researchers hope that the data can be used to create solutions for safer driving.

Study Reports Texting Most Dangerous to Driving

For the study, researchers conducted a controlled experiment on a driving simulator with 68 volunteers driving the same stretch of highway under four different conditions:

  1. No distractions;
  2. Cognitive distraction (mathematical and analytical questions);
  3. Emotional distraction (emotionally stirring questions); and
  4. Sensorimotor distraction (like texting).

They conducted an additional driving session where the subjects were startled by a sudden, unintended acceleration, half while under a mixed distraction, and half without any distractions. During the experiments, they tracked the vehicle’s speed, acceleration, brake force, steering, and lane position signals. They also monitored the subjects’ heart rates, breathing rates, facial expressions, palm sweat, and eye movements.

Results showed that texting led to far more dangerous driving, while a “sixth sense” appeared to protect those suffering emotional upset or absent-mindedness. Texting interfered with that “sixth sense”, letting drivers drift out of their traffic lanes. They also found that all forms of distraction produced physical reactions like perspiration and an accelerated heart rate in the study participants.

Researchers believe that this data, combined with other research, will provide the groundwork for future safety systems, particularly wearable and imaging sensors that can detect a driver’s level of distraction while behind the wheel.

Driver Distraction Snowballs With Each Action

In June 2017, researchers from the University of Iowa (UI) published a study showing how even a simple conversation can affect the brain’s ability to focus on the road. In computerized experiments that tracked drivers’ eye movements, they asked subjects to answer true or false questions. Those who were answering took around twice as long to direct their eyes to a new object on the screen than those who didn’t have to answer questions.

The experiments mimicked a situation in which a driver is having a conversation with a passenger or talking on a cell phone. Study author Shaun Vecera explained that “[w]hat this study suggests, is the reason you should be cautious [when talking on the phone while driving] is it slows your attention down, and we’re just not aware of it because it happens so fast.”

Researchers noted that each time the brain is distracted, the time needed to disengage from one action and initiate another gets longer. Vecera described it as a “snowball effect” that can result in becoming oblivious to one’s surroundings.

In April 2017, CBS News reported on another study that showed using a cell phone while driving more than tripled the risk of getting into a crash.

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