Driver distractions are a major cause of road accidents. A new study has found that just a simple conversation with someone else in the car can be enough to increase driver errors and that the risk is greater if we fancy the passenger.
The research was conducted in a driving simulator by Cale Whitea and Jeff Caird from the Cognitive Ergonomics Research Laboratory (CERL) at the University of Calgary in Canada where they investigated something called a looked-but-failed-to-see error.
This is a form of change blindness, where we look at a scene but fail to notice something has changed. This is an important source of risk when driving, as we may be going through the motions of scanning the road but not taking in new information.
The study looked at how many of these errors would occur when drivers navigated their way through a simulated city, while also tracking their eye movements and errors with motorbikes and pedestrians on dangerous left-turns.
Crucially, the study compared how people performed when they were alone or with an opposite-sex passenger but also asked them about how attracted they were to the passenger and tested levels of extroversion and anxiety.
The results were striking:
Passenger conversations can be distracting. Higher rates of [looked-but-failed-to-see] LBFTS errors occurred when engaged in conversations with attractive passengers. In particular, those drivers who were most extroverted and attracted to the passenger also tended to be more anxious, drove slower, responded less to the pedestrian, and were involved in a greater number of emergency incidents with the motorcycle.
Considering eye gaze behavior was unaffected, the relationship between these social factors and performance variables suggest the nature of conversational distraction is cognitive. This attentional interference was sufficient in eliciting an eight-fold increase in LBFTS errors involving the motorcycle and four-times more pedestrian incidents.
In other words, conversation did not alter how people looked at the road, but it did affect how many dangerous situations people noticed – they just didn’t take them in. Fancying the passenger meant drivers missed more hazards. Their mind was clearly on other things.
Contrary to what parents might say (‘you were just showing off!’) participants actually drove more slowly when they were attracted to the passenger, but still made more errors.
It’s probably worth noting that it wasn’t the hotness of the passenger which was tested in the experiment, but the attraction of the driver, and that the distracting effect was stronger in women than men.
Link to PubMed entry for study.