When Distracted Road Users Cross Paths

Source: Public Roads Magazine, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)

It can happen to even the most attentive drivers. You're driving along and suddenly you realize you have no recollection of the last few seconds, or even minutes. Maybe you were fiddling with the radio or simply spacing out. Many motorists admit to periodically sacrificing their concentration to attend to something else, whether eating, putting on makeup, rubbernecking, daydreaming, or, increasingly, talking on cell phones or texting.

Psychologists refer to this looked-but-did-not-see phenomenon as inattentional blindness. An article, "Did you see the unicycling clown? Inattentional blindness while walking and talking on a cell phone," published in the July 2010 issue of the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology reports on a 2009 study conducted by researchers at Western Washington University that demonstrated the legitimacy of this theory for pedestrians as well. The researchers discovered that pedestrians on the college campus were less likely to notice an unusual activity — in this case, a clown riding a unicycle — if they were distracted by a cell phone. Even if they looked right at the clown, they failed to see the unicycle or the rider because their attention was focused on the phone conversation.

The same thing can happen to drivers when distracted. The nondriving task gets stored in the driver's memory, while the events relevant to driving may go unnoticed or are omitted from memory storage. According to the university researchers, "when driving a car while talking on a cell phone, people may be unaware of what they are missing until it is too late."

According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2009 nearly 5,500 people were killed and 450,000 injured in crashes that were reported to have involved distractions. The problem has received widespread media coverage in recent years, as U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has taken to the airwaves and the Internet at www.distraction.gov to raise awareness of the dangers of inattentive driving. "Distracted driving is a serious, life-threatening epidemic that steals loved ones from us and puts responsible drivers in danger every time they hit the road," says LaHood.

A recent study, "Effect of Road User Distractions on Pedestrian Safety at Mid-Block Crosswalks on a College Campus," conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNC Charlotte) looked at the role of distraction — both among drivers and pedestrians — in yielding behaviors at crosswalks on the college campus. The results point to even greater dangers when motorists and pedestrians lose their focus in the roadway environment.

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