Consider an obscured cliff edge on a hiking trail.
If a warning sign makes you aware of it, you can choose to stay away and completely eliminate the risk of falling to your death.
Or you can make the informed choice to get close to enhance your view. Aware of the danger, you can choose to reduce risk by taking extra care. You might hold onto a tree or get down on your belly and inch yourself closer.
The same goes for driving dangers.
Most driving dangers, like alcohol impairment, are obvious.
Some eliminate the risk they pose to themselves and others by choosing to have zero alcohol in their system when behind the wheel.
Many choose to reduce, rather than eliminate, the risk by keeping within the legal limits. Those making that choice hopefully choose also to compensate for their mild impairment by paying an even higher level of attention to the road.
Another obvious danger is taking your eyes off the road.
A road hazard could occur while your eyes are elsewhere. By the time your eyes get back on the road, it might be too late to react.
So when we choose to look away, whether it’s to adjust the air conditioning, change radio stations, take hold of a coffee mug or check on our kids in the back seat through the rear-view mirror, we compensate for that risk.
We wait until we’ve cleared the intersection or for any other complex road situations to pass. We leave a bit of extra space between our vehicle and the one ahead. We keep the “eyes off the road” time as short as possible.
What a disaster it would be if we were clueless of the dangers of driving impaired or having our eyes off the road, not having the informed choice to eliminate or reduce the risks associated with them!
We are living that disaster when it comes to the danger of “brain off the road”.
Most drivers are unaware of the danger of “inattention blindness”, a term to describe a phenomenon that occurs when the brain is engaged in something else besides driving and your brain fails to process some of the available visual information.
As I shared in my last two columns, scientific studies have concluded that when it comes to engaging in a telephone discussion you see, but fail to process, up to 50% of what you are looking at out of your windshield. And that it makes no difference whether you are talking hands free (with both hands on the steering wheel), or you have one hand up to the side of your head.
We don’t realize it’s occurring. How could we? We don’t get a report at the end of our journey pointing out all the things that came within our field of vision that our brain didn’t have the available resources to process.
Unlike with alcohol, we don’t feel anything of impairment when thinking about the office, chatting away with a passenger, engaging in a cell phone discussion, or even doing the mental gymnastics of voice to text.
From time to time we will miss a turn, get to our destination without having any recollection of the trip, and there will be a close call here and there. But with our lack of awareness of the dangers of “brain off the road”, we think of those as the inevitable by-products of driving.
They are not inevitable.
They are as preventable as falling off a cliff, if only we had awareness of the danger and took steps to eliminate or greatly reduce the risk.
How would driving behaviour change with that awareness?
Some would choose to eliminate the danger.
They would leave their phones completely alone, not chat with their passengers, not engage their brains in an interesting podcast or news story, and would come up with tools to detect if their minds started to wander so they could refocus their attention.
Those choosing to allow their brains to be engaged in other things would take steps to reduce the risk.
They would keep those brain engagements to a minimum. And when engaging their brains elsewhere than the road, they would compensate by continually redirecting as much of their conscious brain energy to the road as possible, allowing only a minimum of their attention to be drawn away.
How do we raise awareness of the danger of “brain off the road?” so that drivers can make informed choices to eliminate or at least reduce their levels of “inattention blindness”?
There needs to be a shift in road safety policy. Our focus must shift from “hands on the steering wheel” and “eyes on the road” to “brain on the road”.
You can help. Become more informed by reading this paper: Understanding the Distracted Brain. And share what you learn with others.
And electronically sign my petition to change our laws to prohibit all cell phone use while driving, because banning only hand held use reinforces driver cluelessness that “brain off the road” is the real problem: Petition.
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