Students are shown how deadly distracted driving is

In our tech-abundant age, there is no shortage of distractions to keep us from the tasks at hand, and if not handled responsibly this constant flow of communication can come at a costly price. In 2009, a study done by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed 5,474 deaths, as well as an additional 448,000 injuries, occurred on U.S roadways as a direct result of distracted driving that year.

Distracted driving, according to the NHTSA, is considered to be more than just talking on the phone. A variety of factors can keep a driver from looking at the road, including: GPS navigation systems, radios or MP3 players, and the most widely recognized, and perhaps deadliest, distraction of them all – texting.

According to the NHTSA’s website, “because text messaging requires visual, manual, and cognitive attention from the driver, it is by far the most alarming distraction.”

Edward Downs, professor in UMD’s Department of Communication, has studied the effects that these distractions can have on people trying to operate a vehicle.

Downs said the ways in which the human brain processes information can be broken down into three resources: cognitive, perceptual, and motor. These resources allow us to store information, receive information, and move our bodies. All three resources are required to perform tasks, such as driving a car.

“When you have two tasks that you’re engaging in concurrently—texting and driving—it requires both cognitive and perceptual resources,” Downs said. “When we start competing for resources, that’s when we get ourselves into trouble.”

Downs performed an experiment at UMD using a PlayStation 3, a steering wheel, and a copy of the auto-racing simulator, Gran Turismo. In the experiment, he had the participants attempt to navigate a car down a road, while also performing other distracting tasks, all within the safety of a computerized simulation. The participants filled out a survey both before and after the experiment, where they stated their likelihood of driving distracted. The results showed that participants were less likely to drive distracted after taking part in the experiment, which, according to Downs, is a key factor in getting people to stop texting and driving.

“Give them the experience and let them come to the conclusion on their own,” Downs said. “That’s going to be more relevant to them than a perceived authority telling them not to do it.” Rob McMenemy, senior Communication student at UMD, said, “Technology is so integrated into our culture that it’s not an easy thing to forget about. It’s almost automatic, so it’s a process, you have to think about it.”

McMenemy added, “You get better at changing behavior. Through experiential learning, like what Dr. Downs talks about, that really assists the process.”

“Anybody can do this experiment,” said Downs. “We didn’t need a $100K simulator; we did this with a PlayStation.”

Downs suggested this method could be used by parents of young drivers, or by driving instructors. However, he warns the danger of sending a wrong message if the experiment is done incorrectly. In cases where a participant might perform well on the exercise, they might be inclined to believe they are good at driving while distracted. Parents must make sure that the right message is delivered, he said.

According to Downs, there is no safe alternative to distracted driving on a cellphone, even with hands-free devices.

“The safest place to keep your cellphone is in the trunk of your car,” he joked.

By Graham Hakala

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