DANGERS OF DAY-DREAMING: Distraction is in your head, not your phone

Young Drivers challenge shows that your thoughts are a great risk while driving

  • Distraction

Internet-enabled Google Glass may be the next big thing the driving public — and legislators — will have to deal with, but it’s only the latest gadget in a tsunami of high-tech gear that competes for our attention in today’s automobiles.

Yet the problem of distracted driving predates all of it.

At the recent Young Drivers of Canada Distracted Driving Challenge, we lit up a Toyota Prius and began our journey in a brave new world of real-time communications displayed not on a smartphone, but a slim headset that piggybacked onto my eyeglasses, with a small LCD screen extending into my line of sight.

“Wouldn’t it be neat to have the ability to peer around corners and see what an unfamiliar road looks like before you get there?” pondered Angelo DiCicco, general manager of YDC, our congenial host during this eye-opening experiment.

As I drove around a Markham industrial plaza, University of Toronto student Wayne Giang sent messages to my Google Glass to simulate real-world traffic updates. The alerts floated in the upper right-hand corner of my field of vision, but as I was attempting to read them DiCicco was directing me through a series of blind intersections and dumpster lanes.

U of T’s Faculty of Industrial Engineering had also outfitted me with a Samsung Smartwatch, another piece of wearable technology, which vibrated every time a message came in. It was all a little overwhelming and my driving became sloppy. I was distracted.

“We think we see way better than we do,” explains Charles Shrybman, senior regional trainer at Young Drivers.

He’s not talking about 20/20 acuity, but the somewhat fuzzy way our brain uses the pictures collected by our eyes.

“There’s overwhelming evidence that says we don’t see things well, based on how we process visual information.” It’s not a visual deficit, but a cognitive lapse.

It’s called inattentional blindness, defined as the failure to notice unexpected stimuli in your field of vision when other attention-demanding tasks are being performed — such as programming your car’s GPS navigation.

Young Drivers organized an experiment to show just how easy it is to distract motorists from the critical task of getting home in one piece. And you don’t need a high-tech gizmo like Google Glass to trip up a seasoned driver.

Jasmine Suhner is an amiable four-year “rookie” YDC instructor who led me in a sobering demo using her Prius C hatchback. As I drove along a sparsely travelled street, she asked me to list three attributes a good newspaper writer should possess.

I knit my brow and thought about a response, then slowly rhymed off some tired clichés about good journalism practices. When I finished, Suhner glanced up from her clipboard and asked me if I had noticed the new speed limit posted on the sign we had passed a moment ago.

“What sign?” I asked, incredulous. “There’s no sign, and if there is, the city must have stuck it behind a tree,” I protested weakly.

A little later, we stopped at an intersection and Suhner asked me to roll down my window before making a right turn. I did so and then began to execute the turn, only to discover a cyclist had come up to our right fender. I hadn’t checked my mirrors a second time. Distracted again.

Back in the classroom, YDC driver improvement manager Jim Kilpatrick underscored Suhner’s lesson with some breathtaking numbers.

“Cognitive disengagement — being lost in thought — is the No. 1 distraction for drivers,” he says. Some 62 per cent of distracted drivers reported “internal distraction,” such as mulling over a problem at work, making thinking the most common distraction.

No. 2 was fiddling with the radio, while third was “external distractions,” such as gawking at a roadside collision or billboard ad. Remarkably, talking on a cellphone and texting were way down the hit list of driver distractions.

Kilpatrick credits the very public debate over cellphone use in cars for shining a light on distracted driving in general. Because while it’s true being lost in thought is as old as motoring itself, there was scant interest in distracted driving until the 1990s, when cellular phones became popular.

Sgt. Jason McIlveen of York Regional Police readily admits eating, reading and holding pets while behind the wheel have long been driver distractions, although they’re rarely considered an offence. Until there’s a collision.

“The public tends to view distracted driving as a ticketing issue — and yes, we could stand on a corner and write tickets all day — but that’s not the challenge. Texting while driving is estimated to be the equivalent of having a blood-alcohol level of 0.125, well over the limit of what the law considers impaired,” says McIlveen.

Ask anyone to assess his or her own driving skills on a scale out of 10 and the average driver will respond with a score of seven or eight. It’s a universal phenomenon regardless of country, creed or religion, and it was reliably duplicated in our own classroom.

Kilpatrick says we are all convinced we’re above-average drivers until the collision stats are tallied.

There were 401,180 reported vehicle crashes in Ontario in 2009, resulting in 477 fatalities and almost 55,000 injured persons. Some 38.5 per cent of all hospitalizations in Canada are attributed to automobile collisions. They’re startling numbers for a nation of drivers who consider themselves skilled.

New wearable technology like Google Glass and smartwatches have heightened awareness of distracted driving, but distractions have always been there.

“We’ve long underestimated the seriousness of distracted driving,” concludes Shrybman. “Despite our wish to multi-task, what the evidence shows is that we really can’t do two things well at the same time.”

  • DANGERS OF DAY-DREAMING: Distraction is in your head, not your phone

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