Last Updated: 5/25/2023

Think about how many times something on the roadside catches your eye. Most of us take our full attention away from the road numerous times during a typical drive, and it's those minor lapses in concentration that can cause serious accidents. This phenomenon is called cognitive distraction, and it's one of the most common -- and least recognized -- types of driving distractions.

What is cognitive distraction?

Most drivers are familiar with the concept of manual distraction (taking your hands off the wheel) and visual distraction (taking your eyes off the road), but few realize there is a third type of distraction -- cognitive. Cognitive distraction is the mental distraction from a task at hand -- in this case, driving.

The majority of drivers that engage in cognitive distraction are typically unaware that they are distracted. This is because many types of cognitive distraction are automatic responses to stimulus, like someone asking you a question or seeing something odd on the side of the road. When your mind loses concentration from driving to answer a question or ponder what was on the roadside, your driving ability can suffer.

Unlike physical or visual driving distractions, which are obvious to a driver, cognitive distraction is a more subtle event. Cognitive distractions can cause subtle but significant changes to your mental driving ability, including the following reactions.

  • Suppressed brain activity in areas of the brain that are needed for safe driving
  • Overreaction to moving objects in a driver's peripheral vision and braking after a lead car has stopped
  • Missed cues and decreased accuracy in regard to moving objects in a driver's peripheral vision
  • Decreased visual scanning of the driving environment.

Cognitive Distraction is a Widespread Problem

In 2011, AAA Foundation conducted an extensive study on the effects of cognitive distraction on drivers using various types of driving distractions. In a related survey, the researchers found that 56 percent of licensed drivers believed that use of hands-free phone devices such as Bluetooth ear pieces and voice commands is acceptable when driving.

To disprove this belief and show that any kind of distraction is unacceptable, the researchers designed a test to measure the brain's distraction from driving during certain in-car tasks. The following tasks were assigned to drivers in various safe testing environments in order to measure the level of cognitive distraction.

  • Listening to the radio
  • Listening to an audiobook
  • Having a conversation with a passenger
  • Having a conversation on a hand-held phone
  • Having a  conversation on a hands-free phone
  • Interacting with a speech-to-text email system

The researchers also added two tasks, non-distracted driving and a complex series of math and verbal problems, as controls to show the high and low ends of the spectrum.

On a workload rating scale with non-distracted driving with a rating of one and the complex math and verbal problems with a rating of five, the other six tasks fell between the two. The simple act of listening, as with the radio and audiobook tasks, provided a slight distraction at the 1.21 and 1.75 ratings, respectively.

Conversations peaked over the two-task workload rating with passenger conversations rating at 2.33, hand-held phones at 2.45 and hands-free phones at 2.27. Finally, using a speech-to-text system created a workload rating of 3.06. The research found that hands-free phone systems still do not equal risk-free use, and text-to-speech creates even more distraction than a hand-held phone call.

Finding Help after a Distracted Driver Accident

The AAA Foundation estimates that more than 3,000 fatalities occur every year due to any of the three types of distracted driving. While cognitive distractions are the least publicized, they are the most prevalent among drivers. The chance that another driver was cognitively distracted when he or she hit your car is highly likely.

If a loved one was seriously injured or killed due to a negligent, potentially distracted driver, The Walker, Billingsley and Bair personal injury law firm is here to help. Contact our office today to schedule a FREE consultation regarding your case and legal options. For immediate assistance, call (888) 435-9886 or fill out our online contact form and get the information you need.

Corey Walker
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With over 28 years legal experience, Corey has been recognized for his work as an injury attorney.