HIGH PERCENTAGE of CAR ACCIDENTS
DUE TO INATTENTION RATHER THAN LACK OF DRIVING ABILITY
by M.A. Recarte, Ph.D., and L.M. Nunes, Ph.D.
Keeping your eyes on the road is obvious advice to drivers. Keeping one's mind
on the road is important as well.
While research has tried to demonstrate
the potential danger of external distractions (looking at road signs
or a map while driving), previous studies have not focused on internal
distractions such as one's thoughts. In their study, psychologists M.A.
Recarte, Ph.D., and L.M. Nunes, Ph.D., of the Universidad Complutense,
in Madrid, Spain, examined whether a driver's eye movements would be
affected by additional verbal and visual tasks to the point where the
driver's ability to pay attention to his or her surroundings is sacrificed.
Twelve drivers between the ages of 21 and 37 drove 43 km on two highways
and 40.6 km on two secondary roads (a total of 83.6 km). Their eye movements
were recorded while they performed verbal and spatial-visual tasks.
On each route they performed two verbal tasks (repeating words starting
with a certain letter) and two spatial-imagery tasks (imagining the
letters of the alphabet, one by one, from A to Z and describing the
letters as far as which letters were "open" or "closed").
and amount of time spent viewing a particular object were used as indicators
of how much visual attention was directed at a particular object. The
researchers also measured how often each driver checked his or her side
and rear mirrors and the speedometer on the dashboard.
found that during spatial-imagery tasks, drivers fixated on certain
points longer and, therefore, glanced at their mirrors and dashboard
less. The driver's attention was affected more by the spatial-imagery
tasks than by the verbal tasks. "It seems that during the visual tasks,
a person's eye freezes up, and the eye's visual inspection window decreases,
which impairs perception of the environment, " said Dr. Recarte.
a person's visual inspection window is reduced," said Dr. Recarte, "peripheral
visual capacity can be affected. Mirror use to evaluate the surrounding
traffic can also be diminished, and this can make it more difficult
to detect changes in traffic."
"The potential hazard of using a cellular
phone is one thing," said Dr. Nunes. "But add in-depth conversation
that requires a considerable amount of mental effort, like recalling
a route on a map, performing a mathematical computation or discussing
an emotional charged subject, and you compound an already risky behavior."
"Our research shows for the first time that doing mental calculations
while driving," said the authors, "may make some people pay less attention
to the road ahead and put themselves more at risk for an accident. On
the other hand, some secondary activity (listening to music) can have
beneficial effects. Drivers need to know how much they can do or think
while driving and know when to stop the activity to concentrate on the
"With our research," said Dr. Nunes, "we are trying to help
people know a little more about themselves to give them the opportunity
to learn better criteria to decide how much they want to use their minds
of Verbal and Spatial-Imagery Tasks on Eye Fixations While Driving,"
M.A. Recarte, Ph.D., and L.M. Nunes, Ph.D.; Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Vol. 6,
L.M. Nunes, Ph.D., can be reached
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