We all know that distractions make driving significantly more difficult and dangerous. Cell phones top the list, at least from lawmakers’ perspectives, and we now have laws in several states which limit cell phone use while driving. Sadly, lawmakers have not found a way to make children stop bugging their parents during car trips. “She’s breathing my air!” and “He’s looking out my window!” make every parent cringe and enhance family outings in immeasurable ways.
Science News, in Shifting Priorities at the Wheel, reports on a new study which demonstrates that simply listening to conversation severely reduces a driver’s ability to safely maneuver a car.
Even a simple form of multitasking â€” driving while listening to someone else talk â€” disrupts the ability to navigate a car safely, a new study finds.
An intriguing neural response underlies vehicular mishaps associated with such distractions, say neuroscientist Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and his colleagues. Attending to what someone says galvanizes language-related brain areas while simultaneously reducing activity in spatial regions that coordinate driving behavior.
This finding suggests that people who combine relatively automatic tasks, such as speech comprehension and car driving, exceed a biological limit on the amount of systematic brain activity they can accommodate at one time, the researchers propose. As a result, the less-ingrained skill â€” in this case, driving, which is learned long after a person grasps a native language â€” takes a neural hit.
Pilots know how distracting simple chit-chat can be. When I am taking off and landing my plane, I ask everybody else on board to stop talking, even to each other; I need to concentrate. If I am flying with several children and they won’t keep quiet, I use the “isolate” switch on my audio panel so that I don’t have to listen to them.
This is a significant enough issue that the FAA formalized it into the Sterile Cockpit Rule in 1981. Wikipedia summarizes it nicely,
The Sterile Cockpit Rule is an FAA regulation requiring pilots to refrain from non-essential activities during critical phases of flight, normally below 10,000 feet. The FAA imposed the rule in 1981 after reviewing a series of accidents that were caused by flight crews who were distracted from their flying duties by engaging in non-essential conversations and activities during critical parts of the flight. One such notable accident was Eastern Air Lines Flight 212, which crashed just short of the runway at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport in 1974 while conducting an instrument approach in dense fog. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that one probable cause of the accident was distraction due to idle chatter among the flight crew during the approach phase of the flight.
It is worth being aware of the biological limits to what our brains can do. When hurtling down the road in a two ton missile, with innocent bystanders on foot nearby, and women and children blithely motoring along in their own cars next to yours, pay attention to the most important task at hand: arriving alive.