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It is not uncommon for drivers to have too much confidence in their skill. They convince themselves they can handle challenging weather, strange traffic patterns or even multitasking while behind the wheel. Even with numerous laws in place to curtail certain driving distractions, drivers believe they can still operate the vehicle safely.

Driving distractions are typically categorized as cognitive, manual or visual. In general, using a cell phone can overlap all three categories. Some activities, such as texting, distract drivers in all three areas. While many drivers understand the hazards of texting while behind the wheel, the dangers of cognitive distraction remain difficult to quantify. Until recently.

University of Sussex researchers ran a study that consisted of two separate experiments designed to measure distraction-free drivers against those tasked with creating mental imagery while attempting to safely operate a vehicle on a simulated course.

Experiment #1

In the first experiment, researchers divided 60 participants into three groups of 20 people each. The first group of 20 was allowed to complete a simulated driving course with no distractions. The second group of 20 had to complete the driving course while answering true or false questions that required the creation of visual imagery. The example given of a true or false statement was “In a rowing boat, the rower sits with his back to the front of the boat.” The driver would then have to create the image of the rowboat to accurately answer the question. The third group of 20 were allowed to complete the course while answering true or false questions that required no visual imagery.

The researchers found that drivers in the undistracted group detected the most road hazards. The group who were forced to complete the course while answering mental image-heavy questions detected the fewest hazards.

Experiment #2

In the second experiment, 46 participants were divided into two groups. The first group of 23 people were allowed to complete a simulated driving course with no distractions. The second group of 23 people were directed to complete the course while performing a mental task. They were told to imagine a 3 x 3 square with themselves occupying the center square. The facilitator would then direct them to “move” around the square (move left, move up, move down, etc.).

The researchers found that the drivers in the second group had slower reaction times to road hazards and were more likely to fail to notice hazards even when looking in the appropriate direction.


Drivers equate distractions with something that physically impedes you from performing the task at hand. Eating chips while driving, for example, or manipulating a GPS menu. While these certainly count as distractions, these two experiments make it clear that even subtle activities can make your trip dangerous. Simply talking on the phone or talking to a passenger can force the driver to create mental images – thinking about an outfit that was worn, picturing the classroom that’s being discussed – and can dramatically impair his or her ability to safely operate the vehicle.