Road Safety News

New report confirms dangers of ‘multi-tasking’ while driving

Friday 20th November 2015

A new report published today (20 Nov) confirms the dangers of ‘multi-tasking’ while driving, and identifies texting and talking on a mobile phone as the ‘most dangerous of driving multi-tasks’.

The battle for attention’, jointly produced by Dr Neale Kinnear and Dr Alan Stevens from the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), and Neil Greig from the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM), has been published in advance of Road Safety Week 2015 (23-29 Nov).

Dr Kinnear, who is a principal psychologist in the study of human behaviour and transport, and Dr Stevens, who is chief scientist and research director with internationally recognised expertise in ‘Human-Machine Interaction’, both reviewed existing research behind in-car distractions to understand the various cognitive processes and complexities in driving.

Their research focuses on the dangers involved when drivers try and engage in more than one task, with results confirming it can have a ‘detrimental’ effect on the quality and accuracy of driving performance.

Looking at the five key areas of distraction - cognitive, visual, auditory, manual and exposure time - the research shows that texting engages three of these to a ‘high’ level – cognitive, visual and manual. A mobile phone conversation also engages three of five areas of distraction to a ‘high’ level – cognitive, audible and exposure time.

The research also found that eating and smoking while driving result in a high level of manual distraction, and that external signage and roadside advertising can create high levels of visual distraction.

While sat-navs are not highly distracting, they do provide a medium level of cognitive and visual distraction, and exposure time.

The report concludes: “Research has confirmed that tasks almost always interfere with other tasks carried out at the same time. The brain never actually focuses on two tasks at the same time – it switches back and forward between them.

“As driving is so complex and requires various cognitive processes, taking on another task when driving can mean a driver is unable to pay sufficient attention to all the activities required for safe driving. This can lead to a processing failure resulting in a loss of control, putting the driver and other road users in physical danger.”

Sarah Sillars, IAM’s chief executive officer, said: “This is proof, should it be needed, that multi-tasking and driving simply don’t mix.

“While there are plenty of distractions to tempt the driver, the individual needs to know that the phone, or internet, or the iPod simply don’t matter – driving is the only activity that should occupy your mind while at the wheel.

“It’s important that we work with the government, car makers and educators to deliver a renewed focus on driver training and road safety – and that people know that distractions can be fatal.”


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Maybe the external stimuli are looked at in a dispassionate and objective way. The question asked, do they concern me? Are they a danger or not and then should action or reaction be taken or they are they merely dismissed? However distractions inside the vehicle are looked at subjectively as they may or do personally effect the driver in some way. The worst such distractions as stated are those that at times require visual attention which is taken off the task at hand a which may increase a driver's vulnerability.
Bob Craven Lancs....Space is Safer Campaigner

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That was indeed what I meant Hugh statements taken out of context can be used to 'prove' pretty much anything.

There does need to be lot more research done on in-car distractions if only because of the fact that there are a lot more of them now. Although we know that the strongest attractor gets the attention we do not know why the in-car attractors appear stronger than the attractors outside the car.
Duncan MacKillop. No surprise - No accident.

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In Duncan's first post, he put the word 'proof' in inverted commas, which I took to mean that he thought the opposite i.e that it wasn't proof at all.

I think Duncan was merely showing how a phrase used in isolation and taken out of context can be misinterpreted and for what it's worth, I don't think he was necessarily agreeing with, or supporting the assertion in question - but perhaps Duncan will correct me if I've also got it wrong.
Hugh Jones, Cheshire

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Duncan - my final post in this thread.

I remain unconvinced by your explanation below. If you genuinely would like to see more research of this type why did you not say so in your first post in this thread?

Instead, you chose use an extract from the report to suggest that using a mobile while driving is a good thing, which is directly at odds with the report's findings.

If I may suggest, perhaps a little more clarity and simplicity in your posts would help us all understand the points you are trying to get across? Unless, of course, it's just me who finds some of your contributions somewhat confusing and contradictory.
Nick Rawlings, editor, Road Safety News

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Far from wanting to undermine the credibility of this research this is exactly the kind of research that I want to see more of. Unlike many other pieces of research this one doesn't shy away from including the outliers and confounders that would normally be swept under the carpet. The point that I dug out is an extremely interesting one in that it appears to be entirely counter-intuitive and therefore worthy of much greater study.

On the matter of your response to my post this is a classic example of one of the many cognitive biases that we all suffer from and which has led you into making a significant error. You responded to what you thought I had said rather than what I actually did say. You entirely missed the bit about things being taken out of context and responded to the example that I gave of how that could be done and then used to prove a particular point of view. For those of us that take an interest in human error and particularly its role in road accidents, confirmation bias is one of the most significant problems that we face.

Read more here
Duncan MacKillop. No surprise - No accident.

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I'm not convinced that was the point of your post Duncan - I think your intention was/is to undermine the credibility of this research and its conclusions.
Nick Rawlings, editor, Road Safety News

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That was my very point Nick that when removed from their contextual setting snippets from reports can be used to support absolutely any point of view. However once you place them back in their context with all the associated caveats their meaning becomes entirely different.

A perfect example of this is the quote in another news story where the MP for North Cornwall says “In 2012, over 550 people were killed on 30mph roads, whereas there were nine fatalities on 20mph roads, so the numbers speak for themselves.” Once again this is taking figures out of context to support a hypothesis when the actual figures say no such thing. I can guarantee that you will see the figures in the MP's quote repeated a great many times without any of the caveats, but I also guarantee that you will not see my decontextualized statement repeated anywhere near as often.
Duncan MacKillop. No surprise - No accident.

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Now Duncan, what you've done is to select an extract from the document summary that supports a point that you wish to make.

So let's give readers the full summary and provide the opportunity for them to consider whether using a mobile phone while driving is 'a good thing', as you suggest below:

It is widely accepted within the scientific community that humans cannot conduct multiple tasks at the same time without adverse effects on the performance of those tasks; this is due to the need to share their limited attentional resources and switch between tasks.

When specifically studying driving, numerous experimental studies overwhelmingly demonstrate that driving performance (as measured by things like speed management, lane discipline and hazard perception) is impaired when a driver is also using a mobile electronic device or in-vehicle technologies (or performs tasks that mimic).

However, the relationship with safety on the road is a more complex picture with some real-world studies showing that drivers adapt their behaviour when speaking on the phone and driving (for example, they slow down, stay in lane, increase distance to other vehicles and increase focus on the road ahead). Studies suggest that this change in behaviour is effective at increasing the safety margin to certain crash types (i.e. rear end crashes); however during the length of a phone call it is likely that the driver is much less likely to anticipate hazards and unexpected events in their periphery.

Adapting behaviour is an indication of drivers’ coping mechanisms for dealing with the added attentional demands of using technology, in order to maintain their safety margins. These changes are (possibly non-conscious) responses to the increased demand being placed upon their limited cognitive resources.

Overall the research suggests that the impact of distraction on safety is task dependent rather than device dependent; for example, texting appears to be more dangerous than conversing on a mobile phone while driving. It seems that this may be related to a dynamic combination of ‘eyes off the road’ time necessary to conduct the task and the safety margins with which a driver can afford themselves. Any mismatch in this process (e.g. failure to correctly appraise safety margins) will increase the risk of a crash.

Essentially though, all non-driving related tasks that require our attention will reduce the attention being paid to driving safely. With technology now a key part of our day-to-day lives it is important to consider how the research knowledge collected to date can inform strategies for reducing distraction and increasing safety on the roads.
Nick Rawlings, editor, Road Safety News

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What normally happens with reports like this is that bits of it are taken out of their context and used to support a particular view.

For example this report says "Drivers make behaviour modifications (possibly unconsciously) when engaging in a mobile phone conversation while driving; for example they reduce speed, increase distance to the vehicle in front, stay in lane and increase
focus on the forward road."

This provides 'proof' (thanks to its impeccable source) that mobile phone use is a good thing because of its positive effect on speeds, distances, lane keeping and focus.
Duncan MacKillop. No surprise - No accident.

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