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The Phenomena Of Attention

March 02, 2017
Driver texting

The stoplight has just turned red. Your cell phone is sitting on the seat next to you, and it vibrated a few blocks back. Should you pick it up and check it? Could this be considered distracted driving, even though the car isn’t moving?

Without a doubt, says Shaun Vecera, a current Obermann Fellow-in-Residence who is studying individuals prone to risky driving and ways to help them pay greater attention. “When you move from one task to another,” explains Vecera, “it takes energy. Your response time is slower when you’ve just done something else, which is why if you’ve checked your phone at a red light, it still affects your driving ability.”

Vecera’s overarching work attempts to understand the basic yet complex mechanisms of attention and perception. An example of his lab’s ongoing work pertains to situations in which we are distracted by items that are completely irrelevant to our ongoing behavior.

For his current study, “Cognition in the Car: Attention, Distractibility, and Driving Performance,” he has partnered with Professor David Strayer at the University of Utah, an internationally known cognitive scientist with an established record of applying basic research on visual attention to topics in driving and driving safety. Strayer was one of the first researchers to report that a cell phone task impaired simple behaviors necessary for driving, such as manually tracking a visual target on a monitor, a behavior analogous to maintaining one’s lane position while driving. Not surprisingly, Strayer’s work, which has direct applicability to car and road engineering as well as policymaking, has received funding from insurance companies and AAA, the motor club.

Vecera and Strayer’s current project occurs against the backdrop of legislation passed in the Iowa Senate in January to toughen the state’s ban on texting while driving. Iowa is one of a small number of states in which texting while driving is not a primary offense. Although it is currently prohibited, law enforcement officers can only ticket a driver for texting if he or she has committed another offense, such as speeding or running a red light; they cannot ticket a driver whom they simply see texting.

Although most states allow for hands-free cellular communication while driving, Vecera points out that “hands-free” is not a solution. “The bigger problem is coming from inside the person,” he says. “The distraction arises from something happening in the driver’s head.” Which is why studies conducted with driving simulators almost always use hands-free cellular communication to show that the physical device is but a fraction of the problem.

The real issue, Vecera explains, is that we are expected to attend to the phone conversation whether or not our hands are involved, as the person on the other end cannot see the environment in which we are driving. Whereas a fellow passenger with whom we are engaged in conversation will naturally pause when we’re engaged in difficult traffic or heavy weather, or will even help us to recognize a danger, such as an animal on the roadway, the person on the other end of a cellular conversation, not involved in this environment, will continue to talk and expect a reply.

Read the full story on the Obermann Center's website.