What’s on Your Mind?

Driving distracted may push our brains,
and our consciousness, to their physical limits

June 18, 2010
By Rachel Adelson

Welcome to your new home theater. Enjoy the cushy seats, wrap-around speakers, satellite radio, docking station for your smart phone and touch-screen display. Feel free to check e-mail, program the radio, look up restaurants or watch a movie. Just please—don’t kill anybody.

In today’s competitive market, auto makers and portable electronic device makers are providing an increasing array of technologies meant both to support driving and to provide information and even entertainment. The problem is that the “infotainment” isn’t just for back-seaters (i.e., restless kids). Now we can have Internet, including access to things like YouTube, on the dashboard—tempting even the most conscientious drivers.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving distracted or inattentive driving; more than half a million were injured. What’s more, 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of near crashes involve some type of distraction that takes the eyes off the road, according to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s 100-car study for the NHTSA. The same group found that texting, above all, makes us more than 20 times more likely to crash.Of distraction-related crashes, those caused by portable electronics appear to be rising the most. Jim Brown, ERIE’s manager of Material Damage, says that relative to the other primary causes of crashes—bad driving, impairment, fatigue—distraction may be the smallest segment, but it’s growing at the fastest rate.

These little luxuries distract hugely from the job at hand. Evidence is mounting like a 10-car pile-up that eyes off the road, hands off the wheel and minds on text-chatter can make safe drivers dangerous, with sometimes fatal consequences. The problem’s gotten so bad that Oprah Winfrey devoted a show last January to the subject, calling distracted driving “America’s New Deadly Obsession,” and in the spring, she started the “No Phone Zone” campaign.

Your Distracted Brain
One reason distraction-related crashes are growing so fast is that our brains and bodies can only go so far. Additionally, the mental process needed to drive requires several areas of the brain to work together, like dancers in a ballet. Distraction can disrupt this choreography. (Imagine Larry the Cable Guy trotting on stage during The Nutcracker.)

The problem is that when we’re driving, we may not consciously know if we’re distracted. Dr. David Strayer, a psychologist at the University of Utah, and other experts explain this phenomenon by noting that people tend to think they’re better-than-average drivers and multi-taskers, and thus may not recognize the impact of distracting activity.

Another expert, Dr. Linda Angell, points out this is partly because normal, routine driving seems automatic—when it really isn’t.

In fact, “routine driving is inherently multitasking by itself,” says Angell, who’s a professor at Wayne State University and president of Touchstone Evaluations, an independent research lab that evaluates products and their effects on human experience, including distraction and driving. “Driving may be highly practiced, but there’s a lot of unexpected activity going on all the time; it requires more attention than we may be conscious of.”

So, what’s really happening upstairs when you’re behind the wheel?

Highways and Byways of the Brain
Advances in technology, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have allowed scientists to discover what parts of the brain become more or less active as we perform day-to-day tasks. Neuroscientists studying driving have used this imaging system to capture pictures of “the driving brain.”

Here’s some of what they’ve found:

Neural CircuitryDriving cranks up the brain’s motor cortex. This section helps control our motor skills. It activates movement of our hands, feet and head during driving.

The visual cortex deep inside the brain lights up. As drivers scan the scene, their eyes transmit sensory input to the brain, which makes sense of the world outside.

Driving activates the parietal lobes. Angell’s colleague, Dr. Li Hsieh, at Wayne State University (and a co-founder of Touchstone Evaluations) explains that these lobes coordinate visual and motor responses—making sure, for example, that you step on the brake for a stop sign.

Driving gooses a central cortical strip. Activations in this strip are associated with how we pay attention.

The frontal lobes serve as the big boss. Right at your forehead, this section coordinates responses and activity among all the different regions. It monitors and conducts your mental traffic, and is important for all behavior, including safe navigation on the road.

“That frontal cortex is responsible for maintaining task goals, updating information, keeping us on task,” Strayer explains.

But, the frontal cortex is like an overworked boss: it hates interruptions and may need longer to catch up after one. That’s why a ringing cell phone or text alert that might make a driver happy can make the big boss inside kind of slow. It’s an interruption of the mental ballet—producing another lane in the mental traffic to manage.

Unfortunately, driving may not always allow time for a slowed-down brain to catch up with changing conditions, such as a sudden stop ahead or a rain-slick road.

“The goal is to minimize distraction effects to allow people to compensate adequately,” says Dr. Richard Young, a professor at Wayne State University School of Medicine and another co-founder of Touchstone Evaluations.

Indeed, the human brain seems able to compensate for low-level demands—listening to soft rock, chatting lightly with passengers, mulling over work, as shown in real-world research on naturalistic driving from Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI).

But are we pushing it?

The Brain in Overdrive
Because of what happens in the brain—unknowingly to someone who is driving — distraction works a little differently than other dangerous driving mistakes, such as driving while intoxicated. Alcohol and drugs slow the entire nervous system and impair judgment in ways that a driver cannot turn off or compensate for (you cannot decide not to be drunk once you are inebriated). But some drivers may believe distraction is harmless, all the while taking eyes off the road, hands off the wheel and mind off the drive.

But as scientific and statistical studies together have shown, distractions can turn otherwise conscientious drivers into little more than crash-test dummies.

Strayer’s lab, for example, claims that driving and talking on a cell phone may compete for the same neural circuitry.

It could explain why, in simulated driving, cell phone conversations lead to worse driving than talking to a passenger.

Some scientists, such as Strayer, theorize that talking to someone not physically present may ignite your imagination, causing you to picture mental images that interfere with spatial processing, or your ability to size up what’s around you (kind of important in driving).

According to Strayer, eye-tracking studies show that undistracted drivers scan the world from side to side for input, but cell-phone drivers tend to stare straight ahead, not changing their glance patterns when needed. Glazed, somewhat dazed, “they look but don’t see,” he says.

It Goes Beyond Gadgets
It’s also not just cell phones and other “interactive” gadgets that compete for a driver’s attention. Strong emotions can distract. (After a divorce for example, crash rates are known to increase.)

Dr. Marcel Just, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, found that listening to spoken sentences dampened activity in certain parts of the brain. In his laboratory studies, people simulating driving while listening to spoken sentences had more “virtual” crashes and also veered more from the lane, compared to simulated driving with no listening.

“Technology that’s in the car but not related to driving,” Just notes, “is enabling risk that people greatly underestimate.”

Texting, for example, wins the toxic trifecta by taking eyes, hands and minds away from driving all at once. A Virginia Tech study showed that texting is 23 times (that is 2,300 percent) more likely to result in a crash than ordinary baseline driving.

There are other high-risk combinations. Dr. Young points out that if alcohol and drowsiness each make a driver four times more likely to crash than normal, together they raise the odds to 16 times more likely.

What does it all mean? Driving distracted just isn’t worth the risk.

Deterring Distraction Something that seems so simple — keeping eyes on the road, hands on the wheel — still somehow eludes millions of drivers. Here are easy tips on deterring distraction.

Rachel Adelson writes about technology and the science of behavior from her office near Toronto. Within an hour of finishing this story, she found herself driving behind someone putting on mascara at the wheel.

Steps to Save Money on Car Insurance in Lynchburg

There is a very good chance that you are — this very moment — paying too much for your car insurance in Lynchburg. There is an even better chance that you could get a better rate, from another insurance company, than you could from your existing insurer.

So why not take an hour or so and review your policy for potential savings? Or, if you’re fed up with the high insurance rates from your current insurer, shop around for a new company.

You can save on auto insurance in five ways:

  1. Make sure you get all discounts you qualify for
  2. Keep your driver’s record clean and up-to-date
  3. Adjust your coverage to assume more risk
  4. Drive a “low profile” car equipped with certain money-saving safety features
  5. Shop around for a good, low cost insurance provider

First, let’s look at the discounts you might qualify for. Discounts fall into a number of categories:

  • Low-risk occupations
  • Insurance financial score
  • Professional organizations
  • Combined coverage
  • Discounts for safety features
  • More risk assumed by driver
  • Discounts for senior citizens

money-down-drainLow-Risk Occupations
Insurance is a numbers game. Adjustors collect information about what types of people get into accidents. Over the years they see a trend. Drivers that work as engineers tend to get into fewer accidents. Why? It would be fun to speculate about the reasons (pocket protectors — need we say more?) but the insurance companies don’t really care about that. All they know is that, in fact, engineers are a low risk. Since there is less chance that they will wrap their cars around the trunk of a horse chestnut tree, they charge engineers less for insurance.

But you say you are a teacher instead of an engineer? You might still be in luck. There may be discounts for teachers. You never know unless you ask — and unless you shop around. Not all insurance companies are the same.

Insurance Financial Score
What in the world is an insurance financial score?  How you handle your money can impact how much you pay on insurance. Actuarial studies show that how a person manages his or her financial affairs, which is what an insurance score indicates, is a good predictor of insurance claims.  So think twice when you are asked to sign up for a Macy’s department store credit card to save 15% on your purchase.  Opening that credit card may cost you in the long run.

Professional Organizations and Auto Clubs
Have you ever been about to pay $100 for a hotel room, only to discover that a AAA discount saves you 15 percent? Now you’re paying $85 and feeling proud of yourself. It’s similar in the insurance business. Affiliation with AAA — and certain other professional organizations — may lower your rates. At the same time try checking directly with the insurance company representative when you inquire about the cost of policies.

Combined and Renewal Discounts
A big source of savings is to insure your cars with the same company that insures your house. Make sure you ask if combined coverage is available. This will lower your payments on your car insurance and make your homeowner’s policy cheaper too.

It’s also important to make sure you are getting a “renewal” discount that many car insurance companies offer. This is a discount given to people who have been with the same insurance company for an extended period of time. A renewal discount is a good incentive to urge you to return. And it’s a good reason for you to stay with them.

Discounts for Auto Safety Features
Auto safety features will also lower your payments. Heading the list of money saving safety features is antilock brakes.  Automatic seatbelts and airbags are also frequently rewarded with insurance discounts.

Assume More Risk
Two powerful ways to bring your coverage down is to assume a higher risk. This is done in two ways. The most dramatic reduction can be realized by dropping your collision insurance on an older car. If the car is worth less than $2,000, you’ll probably spend more insuring it than it is worth. The whole idea of driving an older car is to save money, so why not get what is coming to you?

Another way to redesign your policy — and save money in the process — is to ask for a higher deductible. The deductible is the amount of money you have to pay before your insurance company begins paying the rest. In other words, you pay for the little dings and bumps and let your insurance company pay for the heavy hits.

For example, a common deductible amount is $500. This means if an accident you’re in causes $1,500 worth of damage, you pay $500 and the insurance company pays $1,000. You could, however, set your deductible to $1,000. This still covers you against heavy losses, but it may decrease your monthly premium by as much as 30 percent.

As a final note, if you are being strangled by high insurance costs, keep this in mind when you go car shopping next time. The more expensive and higher-performance the car is, the higher the premium will be. This is particularly true of cars that are frequently stolen, or are expensive to repair. The insurance company keeps this in mind when setting its insurance rates for this vehicle. Shop for a low-profile car and get your kicks in other ways. You’ll love the savings you’ll see on your auto insurance.

These are just a few ways to save.  Contact Nelles Insurance Solutions, Inc today for more ways to get the most insurance bang for your buck and avoid throwing money down the drain.  Nelles Insurance is conveniently located in Lynchburg, VA.