How can cognitive distraction impair driving performance?

Cognitively distracted drivers may show a lack of awareness of their surroundings, slow response times and residual distraction.

In recent years, distracted driving has become an increasingly common cause of car accidents in Las Vegas and other areas. In 2014 alone, this reckless habit claimed 3,179 lives and left over 431,000 victims injured, according to Distraction.gov. Not surprisingly, most drivers now recognize the dangers of visually or physically demanding distractions, such as texting. However, many of the same motorists may still overlook the threat of mental distraction.

To many people, distractions with a purely cognitive nature - such as hands-free cellphones or voice-activated technology - provide a safer alternative to other distractions. However, research shows that cognitive distraction can be just as harmful as other forms of distraction, as it can cause a number of serious performance issues in drivers.

Delays in reaction times

The National Safety Council explains that mentally distracted drivers may show slow reaction times for a few reasons. First, the brain can only simultaneously handle multiple tasks by switching very rapidly between them. The time that this switching takes can slow a driver's response time significantly. Furthermore, attempts at performing multiple cognitively challenging tasks at once may overwhelm the brain, resulting in slower and poorer performance at each task.

The delays that mental distraction can cause are not trivial. In one simulation-based study, legally drunk drivers showed better response times than drivers who were mentally distracted while talking on their cell phones.

Blindness to surroundings

Although mentally distracted motorists might feel like they are giving adequate attention to driving, they may fail to process many critical visual cues. Per the NSC, cognitive distraction can prevent a driver from taking in up to half of the information that is present in his or her immediate environment. This can increase the risk of a driver causing a serious car crash after missing important signals, such as the following cues:

  • Traffic control devices
  • Pedestrians and other road users
  • Navigational signs

Troublingly, research shows that distracted drivers are just as likely to miss critical cues as relatively minor ones.

Lingering mental deficits

Research published in 2015 also shows that the effects of cognitive distraction can last longer than many drivers realize. According to The East Valley Tribune, the study in question found that motorists remained distracted for up to 27 seconds after they stopped using voice-controlled technology. This may greatly raise the risk of distracted driving accidents, since a person traveling at just 25 miles per hour can traverse the length of three football fields in this amount of time.

Exploring potential legal remedies

Sadly, despite extensive research highlighting the harmful impacts of cognitive distraction, many drivers may remain unaware of these risks. When accidents occur as a result, victims may be eligible to receive compensation for their injuries and other losses. Consequently, speaking with an attorney may be an advisable starting point for anyone who has survived a distraction-related accident.