Understanding the dangers of cognitive distraction

Given the rise in serious distracted driving crashes in North Carolina, drivers can benefit from understanding this form of distraction and its dangers.

In recent years, distracted driving has become a growing threat to motorists in North Carolina. According to WFMY News, data from the North Carolina Department of Transportation indicates that just from 2014 to 2015, deadly distraction-related car accidents increased 10 percent. Last year, 159 lives were lost in these needless accidents.

This rise in serious distracted driving accidents may surprise many people in Wilmington, since state law bans all drivers from texting and prohibits certain drivers from using handheld cell phones. Unfortunately, current traffic laws may fail to address another equally serious and widespread threat: cognitive distraction.

Identifying cognitive distraction

Cognitive distraction occurs when a person shifts attention away from driving and to another mentally demanding activity. Talking on a handheld cell phone and using voice commands to operate an electronic device are a few examples of activities that can cause this type of distraction. As the National Safety Council notes, cognitive distraction may be especially dangerous because people are often less attuned to it. While many drivers may seek to limit manual and visual distractions, they may not recognize instances when they are cognitively distracted.

Dangerous side effects

Cognitive distraction can have many adverse impacts on driving performance. Per the NSC, research has shown that people who are cognitively distracted are oblivious to up to half of the visual information in their immediate environments. These drivers also exhibit delayed response times and diminished activity in some regions of the brain that are normally active during driving. These effects may all raise the risk of serious or even fatal car accidents. Problematically, due to their distraction, many drivers may not even be aware of these deficits.

Combating cognitive distraction

Unfortunately, cognitive distraction may remain a prevalent problem because it is not widely recognized as a threat to roadway safety. As Fox News notes, the presence of hands-free infotainment systems in vehicles may confuse drivers about the dangers of cognitive distraction for all of the following reasons:

  • Automakers often present hands-free systems as a safe alternative to using handheld cell phones.
  • Drivers mistakenly assume that these systems would not be built into vehicles if they were dangerous.
  • Drivers do not realize that these systems are not yet formally regulated or tested.

Compounding this problem, many state laws focus exclusively on devices such as handheld cell phones and activities such as texting, without acknowledging the risks of hands-free distractions. Here in North Carolina, using hands-free devices while driving is still legal for all motorists, despite the risks that these devices pose.

Obtaining legal recourse

Although traffic laws don't currently address the issue of cognitive distraction, people who suffer harm due to distracted drivers may have legal recourse. A driver's decision to engage in an activity that endangers others may represent negligence and may provide grounds for a personal injury lawsuit. People who believe another driver's distraction contributed to an accident may benefit from reviewing their rights and options with an attorney who has experience with these unusual cases.