On a winter afternoon in Michigan, a 20-year-old woman ran a red light while talking on a cell phone. She slammed into another vehicle crossing with the green light directly in front of her, and killed a 12-year-old boy. The vehicle she hit was not the first car through the intersection, but the third or fourth. An investigation determined the woman never braked and was traveling 48 mph at impact. According to witnesses, the woman was on her phone, “looking” out the windshield as she sped past four cars and a school bus stopped for the red light in the second lane of traffic. Researchers have called this crash a classic case of inattention blindness caused by the cognitive distraction of a cell phone conversation.
Eyes Wide Shut
According to the National Safety Council, drivers talking on cell phones, even hands-free, can be “looking” through the windshield and miss “seeing” up to half of what’s around them. Yet, the problem of “looking,” but not “seeing” is not limited to cell phone usage. Any thoughts other than driving in a driver’s mind can be problematic. The usual list of suspects includes an argument at home, a favorite tune on the radio or daydreaming. The fatigued driver also often fits into this category. Our brains simply aren’t equipped to process two dissimilar tasks, each requiring a high level of concentration. “Seeing” and reacting take brainpower, and if mental “processing” shuts down for even a moment, a driver can unwittingly make a serious mistake. In other cases, drivers proceed based on their expectations, and they don’t see things because they didn’t expect to see anything. Drivers can also miss “seeing” things when they focus on one point and their peripheral vision does not spot other dangers.
As the professional driver, it is your responsibility to limit self-imposed distractions when behind the wheel. In every state, it is illegal for commercial motor vehicle drivers to use hand-held phones, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is “looking” to broaden the law to include professional drivers who transport passengers in non-commercial vehicles. Be well rested before driving. Focus on the task of driving and don’t be distracted by situations at home, daydreaming or the radio. Keep your eyes moving. Make eye contact with other drivers, and if they don’t seem to be aware of your presence, give yourself time and space to help avoid the consequences of their possible inattention. Slow down and look twice before making a move. Make sure that you are the driver who is “looking” and “seeing” whenever you are on the road.