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MIT Study Finds Drivers Can Be Distracted by Thoughts Alone

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Tying a Tie

The artist writes: "Tying a Tie. What next? What Were You Doing When You Should Have Been Driving?"

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study has found that drivers can be distracted simply by their thoughts alone, which can cause car accidents. As Larry Copeland reports in USA TODAY, researchers found that the deeper a driver’s level of thought, the less the driver focuses on things around him or her.

Hiawatha Bray interviewed Bryan Reimer, associate director of MIT’s New England University Transportation Center, and head of the study, and writes on Boston.com:

Even small demands on the brain can affect the way you drive, Reimer said.

For example, research showed changes in behavior when drivers simply repeated numbers as they were read out loud. ‘You drive slightly differently,’ he said. ‘Your heart rate increases. [You’re still] oriented forward, but less situationally aware.’

Reimer is concerned about the prospect of [a driver] grappling with a stream of tweets and Facebook updates on a car’s video screen, while also negotiating the demands of rush-hour traffic and perhaps cellphone conversations.

“It is the challenge of the auto industry, as well as regulators, to objectively assess what tasks should be safely allowed in the vehicle,’’ Reimer said. “We need to do a better job of engineering before we put all this in front of someone.’’

Copeland writes that the researchers recorded the gaze and driving performance of 108 people in their 20s, 40s, and 60s driving a mid-size sport utility vehicle on Route 93 north of Boston while being given three levels of cognitive tasks, ranging from repeating a single-digit number to remembering that digit or two digits some time later. Distracted drivers who were focused on the road ahead but not on the surrounding environment reacted more slowly to a car breaking in front of them, Reimer said.

The study, “A Field Study on the Impact of Variations in Short-Term Memory Demands on Drivers’ Visual Attention and Driving Performance Across Three Age Groups,” found no age difference in scanning patterns. It is published in the February 29, 2012, issue of Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

Image by Mike “Dakinewavamon” Kline (Mike Kline), used under its Creative Commons license.

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