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While many of us are behind the wheel this July 4th weekend, we may be tempted to make a call from our cell phones. But, as this ScienCentral News video reports, some researchers are looking at the dangers of driving while distracted.
"There's very good evidence that people who talk on the cell phone— it impairs their driving," says Rene Marois, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University. "It's as simple as that."
Marois and his colleague James Todd used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the brains of 20 participants while they were presented with a barrage of visual information. Reporting in the journal Neuron, Marois found that you can see something, but not necessarily process it, and that "whenever we pay attention to an object or a visual event we actually need to dwell on that object or event for a few hundred milliseconds, almost up to a second or half a second. While our brain is busy processing one visual event, we may not be able to process other visual events that are going on in the visual world."
Marois points out that a half a second is long enough for an information "bottleneck" to occur, especially behind the wheel. "When we're driving and there's something that attracts our attention in the visual field, then we're less likely to detect something else going on in that visual field within about half a second after that," says Marois. "Of course, when you're driving, this can have dire consequences."
"We found that when people are talking on the cell phone, their reactions are slowed by about 20 percent," says Strayer. "We also found that people, when they're on the cell phone, are more likely to get into accidents than when they're not talking on a cell phone. So not only are your reactions sluggish, but those sluggish reactions can lead to accidents."
Strayer thinks that when you're talking on your cell phone, you enter a sort of "virtual reality" with the person you're talking to, instead of dealing with the physical environment you're actually in. "What happens is, even though the driver is looking out the windshield, [and] they're looking at signs and other information in the driving scene, they're not actually processing it," says Strayer. "They're not seeing that information because their mind is concentrating on the cell phone conversation, and not on driving."
Marois believes that although the brain is a powerful processing machine, it has limitations, and driving while talking on a cell phone stretches those limitations. "The more we understand the capacity limits that we're faced with, the better we can design regulations and road safety signs to handle the capacity limits that we're confronted with," he says.