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What is cognitive distraction and why is it so dangerous to drivers?

Distracted driving is a common cause of accidents in Alaska and every other state. According to, the U.S. government’s official website for distracted driving, this reckless behavior caused over 3,000 deaths and 431,000 injuries just in 2014. Additionally, since proving that a person was distracted at the time of an accident can be challenging, these figures could even under-represent the number of serious car accidents that involve driver inattention.

Given these statistics, many people in Anchorage appreciate the dangers of common driver distractions, including ones that demand manual input or visual attention. Unfortunately, many drivers are less aware of the risks of cognitive distraction. This form of inattention is frequently seen as harmless, but in reality, it can be just as dangerous as other distractions.

Defining cognitive distraction

Cognitive distraction occurs when a driver diverts his or her attention to another mentally demanding task. Talking on a hands-free cell phone and using a voice-activated electronic system are two activities that produce almost purely cognitive distraction. Many other distractions, such as texting, adjusting in-vehicle controls and eating, have a physical as well as cognitive component.

Impacts on driving performance

Cognitively distracting activities may seem less risky than tasks that take a driver’s eyes off the road or hands off the wheel. However, research from the National Safety Council indicates that drivers who are cognitively distracted are at risk for various performance issues.

To reach this conclusion, the NSC reviewed over 30 studies of drivers who were cognitively distracted. Although these studies focused on people who were using hand-held or hands-free cell phones, it is likely that the findings are applicable to drivers who are engaging in other mentally distracting tasks. The NSC found that these drivers exhibited the following serious impairments:

  • Slow reaction times. In one study, legally drunk drivers even out-performed cognitively distracted drivers in terms of response times.
  • Blindness to their surroundings. Researchers estimate that up to half of the information in a cognitively distracted driver’s immediate environment – which might include other vehicles or traffic control devices – goes unnoticed.
  • Reduced activity in parts of the brain that are normally active during driving. As an example, the parts of the brain that oversee navigation, visual information processing and spatial processing show less activity when drivers are listening to language.

These adverse effects also may last longer than drivers realize. According to The Washington Post, a study published in late 2015 found that participating drivers remained mentally distracted for 15 to 27 seconds after using hands-free devices. Alarmingly, a driver traveling at 25 miles per hour can cover the length of three football fields in 27 seconds. At higher speeds, this gap between completing a mentally demanding task and refocusing on driving could greatly raise the risk of distracted driving accidents.

Handling distraction-related accidents

Although drivers in Alaska can legally engage in many forms of cognitive distraction, including talking on hands-free cell phones and using voice-activated technology, these actions may still constitute negligence. People who suffer harm due to another driver’s inattention may therefore be able to seek damages for their injuries and other losses. A car accident attorney may be able to further advise people in this position on their legal rights and potential remedies.