There are many levels of distraction. Not a surprising statement, right? A study by MIT found this statement to be true when they measured the eye movement of 108 volunteers as they drove an interstate while performing number-related tasks. Even the task of repeating back a single number gave an increase in “gaze concentration”, a term used to describe a driver looking ahead, but not scanning his surroundings, looking for potential dangers.
In other words, “Just because you have your eyes on the road doesn’t mean you have your mind on the road,” says study author, Bryan Reimer. “In the past, the emphasis was on whether you’re distracted or not distracted,” he says. “This is too simple of a categorization. There are levels of cognitive demand, and those levels are statistically distinguishable.”
Reciting a single number is probably not so dangerous, since cognitive attention can be returned to the driving task quickly, but the more demanding a distraction, the longer the inattention to the road. Think about an intense telephone conversation or having to remember a whole 10-digit phone number and type it into a phone. Cognitive distractions – ones that require your brain – can really pose a huge threat.
Reimer suggested text messaging as one example of an action that no driver can devote cognitive resources to while safely piloting a moving vehicle. He’s correct, since texting while driving makes an accident 23 times more likely.
Wired magazine reports “The problem is that drivers don’t know their own limits — and those limits can rapidly change as cognitive load increases and decreases during the course of a drive.” Indeed, drivers engage in potentially distracting secondary tasks 30 percent of the time their vehicles are in motion.