Inattention blindness: multi-tasking on the roads - what's the cause and effect?
However we use the roads we all recognise in our city they are busy, frustrating at times and unpredictable. While most people do follow the Highway Code some don't - whatever the road user type. Most of the time we are travelling in areas we know - so tend to go on autopilot, having a general awareness of risk areas. But things can change at any time. Most collisions happen within 10 miles of home. Now we are connected in a way we never were -phone/text/social media/remote office. The possibility of productively/enjoyably using our time whilst doing mundane driving exists to a far greater extent than previously.
The law indicates that is risky to use a handheld phone when driving - 6pts and a fine of up to £200. And if you have a collision you are likely to be prosecuted for dangerous driving/death by dangerous driving with imprisonment a probable outcome (up to 14yrs). Research shows that using a hands free phone is as dangerous, authorities are now reviewing their approach (though currently if involved in a collision you are subject to the same laws, just not for using a handheld device without incident). In vehicle videos have shown the tragic consequences of this - A34 fatal collision . Many organisation now ban their employees driving for work from using their phones at all when driving - hand held or hands-free. Their insurers and management of corporate risk insist on this.
When driving a vehicle we have much more potential to cause injury or worse to others. But however we use the roads we do not have the capacity to multitask safely. Even as a pedestrian, stepping out in front of a bus whilst looking at a phone risks not just you but passengers in the bus. If the driver has to emergency brake, vulnerable passengers - the elderly, disabled and young - can be seriously injured. The driver has to decide in an instant what the balance of injury risk is.
Check your skills
The Open University is developing a module on improving driver skills. As part of this they've developed a free quick check of your capability to multitask. How well do you do? Try it here Warwick University have done similar work on change blindness - it's a fact that even when we are focussed on the roads we still don't notice everything. Our brain filters what is important from what it's experienced before - there's just too much information coming in. So if we try to multitask we are degrading our already stretched capabilities too far.
As a driver we can improve our skills by doing Advanced Driver - local providers include RoSPA partners and IAM partners. It really is a great way of becoming as effective a driver as is reasonably possible, improving awareness and anticipation as well as minimising any bad habits picked up over your driving lifetime. If you drive for work your employer may have access to advanced driving courses to manage your occupational risk.
Distractions can be physical or emotional/cognitive
Phones etc. are very distracting when using the roads. One of the reasons that they are so distracting is that they take our mind away from our environment. We bring to mind the people and situation we are talking to. Even 5 minutes after a phone call it has been determined that the driver's reaction time can still be affected.
However our overall emotional state can also affect the amount of risk we take when using the roads.
If you are angry, worried or extremely happy these emotions can make you less likely to focus on what is around you.
Be aware of how you are feeling and aim to be calm and considered when making your journey. Simple mindfulness techniques can help - deep breathing over a minute or taking 3 minutes to use all your senses to engage with the environment around you, before you set off. Failure to look properly remains the single largest collision causation factor. Ensuring you are fully engaged in your driving environment gives you time to react to the unexpected.