Not Paying Attention

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and by not paying attention it’s now two-thirds over. As I’ve been working in the property catastrophe insurance space the last ten years, I’ve missed some of the current (and not so current) research on distracted driving. I saw the news reports about various states passing anti-texting while driving laws, and here in Massachusetts junior operators may not use cell phones while driving. I also see the problem most days while driving as other drivers suddenly drop from 65-70 mph to 55 or less when they answer their phone. I also know that it is very tempting, especially at a red light, to check my phone while I wait for the light. What I didn’t realize was how much research has been done on the cognitive side of the issue.

When I first heard about the issue of driving while distracted, the first thing that popped into my head was an old episode of CHiPs where a man was pulled over for shaving while driving. How hard can this be, really? Adjusting the radio, drinking coffee, talking with someone in the car, none of these seem particularly dangerous, but cell phone use seems to be, even with a hands-free device. The study from Carnegie Mellon University in 2007 found that the activity in the part of the brain that performs spacial processing declined 37% when the subject was listening to sentences. I think the same thing happens while folks listen to talk radio, but there is a difference. The radio can be ignored or shut off when driving becomes more complicated. A conversation with another passenger isn’t as distracting since the passenger will be more forgiving that the full attention isn’t being put to the conversation. On the phone, though, the usual expectation by the person not in the vehicle is that you are giving the their full attention just as if you were at your desk speaking to them instead of hurtling down the highway or driving past a school.

Fun research that will likely show you how easily it is to miss things can be found at The Invisible Gorilla. Take a look at some of these videos and then think about whether you really can phone and drive without missing important dangers while driving: the signal turning red, a child in a group not getting across the street as fast as his friends, or a parked car pulling into traffic mid-block. For one who thought he was pretty observant, failing to see what is more than obvious (if you expect it) is humbling.

My question for further thought is, “How do we segment this inattentive behavior in the Auto Liability insurance class plan?”. Back in the 1990s and earlier, one may have asked if you owned a cell phone or car phone and assumed that it was being used while driving, but now there are few who don’t own a mobile device.. How do you separate those that understand the danger and use technology safely from those who need to “Hang up and drive!”.

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