By: Paul Atchley, Ph.D.
What do teen drivers, older drivers, and distracted drivers all have in common? The answer is “the brain.” And understanding the brain is the key to knowing why we get into car crashes and how to prevent these crashes.
Contrary to popular belief, we do not multitask. Our brains are incapable of doing so. Instead, we rapidly task switch between all of the tasks vying for our attention. When we drive, at a minimum we must switch our attention between:
- The road (“Is that car getting ready to stop?” “Is the light green?”)
- Controlling the car (“Am I driving straight? “How fast am I going?”)
- Status of the vehicle (“Do I have gas?” “Should I shift”)
Even with these basic tasks, our attention must be allocated very strategically to drive safely. Teens struggle with this.
One of the reasons teen are such at-risk drivers is because they lack the experience to know how to strategically switch their attention. As Dr. Donald Fisher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and other researchers have shown, younger drivers’ brains don’t attend to the right places at the right times. Therefore, teens can miss potential hazards and find themselves unable to prevent crashes.
With experience, we can take our limited attention and put it in the right place. For example, adult drivers can look left and right at intersections even when the light is green, and they can see hazards that an inexperienced driver might miss. Adults’ brains have had enough experience doing this kind of strategic switching. Ask teen drivers to do this and they’re going to struggle.
It also does not help that one of the areas of the brain that helps us coordinate where and when we attend to different tasks does not fully develop until we are in our early to mid-20’s. An area of the brain known as the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) contains a number of neural subsystems that help us keep track of our goals, control our attention, and make choices about when, and how, to task switch. The younger brain is still developing – another reason driving is a risky task for teens.
The PFC is also one of the first areas of the brain to go in advanced age, which partially explains why older drivers become riskier drivers after decades of being the safest drivers. By some estimates, almost half of crashes involving older drivers are due to attention problems. One suggestion is that statistic is due to changes in the older drivers’ ability to control their attention. However, to conclude all of our driving problems can be blamed on our brains would be to ignore the choices we make and how they can limit the extent of the resources we have.
A number of years ago, a former student and I guessed that one reason distracted driving is so dangerous is that it limits your attention. We used a test called the Useful Field of View – used to screen older drivers for attention problems – to examine the attention of younger drivers when they were distracted. Without a simple hands-free conversation, the 18- to 22-year-old drivers looked like fighter pilots: lots of attention capacity. When we had the teens talk on the phone and take the test (which required touching icons on a computer screen) at the same time, they looked like 70-year-old adults with dementia.
For even the best of us – those whose brains have fully developed and have been driving for a long time – cell phones demand our attention. When we use them while driving, we have a reduced capacity to notice hazards on the road because cell phones are too distracting. For a teen, this is an even bigger problem because they have poor attention skills to begin with.
Bottom line: You need your brain to drive. If you use your head for things other than driving, your mind is not fully on the road.
• Dr. Atchley is renowned for his research on issues of vision and attention related to driving. He is an associated professor of psychology at the University of Kansas and frequently presents on the cognitive distraction that occurs in drivers talking on cell phones.
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