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Understanding the major sources of driver distraction

It is a well-known fact that distracted driving is incredibly risky, yet it still causes many of the accidents on the road today. This is partially because of the nature of driving - any task that requires constant attention and vigilance is also going to have operator distraction as a weak point, because the human attention span is finite. At the same time, there are a few key ways you can minimize distraction to add to your personal safety.

Types of distraction

The first step is to understand the main types of driver distraction. They are:

  • Cognitive
  • Visual
  • Manual

Most people are fairly used to handling visual distractions, and vehicles are typically designed to minimize them. It's why many people stream music or podcasts in the car, but very few attempt to watch a movie while they are in the driver's seat. Most visual distractions come from roadside spectacles, including landmarks, signs, other vehicles and accidents.

Manual distraction is also easy to identify. It comes from the handling of physical objects that pull your attention away from the vehicle controls. These distractions can include technology like touch-screen devices and the car's built-in entertainment or climate controls, and they can also involve the driver's attempts to multitask. Examples of that kind of manual distraction include eating, drinking, shaving or applying makeup.

Understanding cognitive distraction

Cognitive distraction is perhaps the hardest for drivers to understand because it is not always as obvious as visual and manual distraction. Visual and manual distractions also usually include some form of cognitive distraction, which can make it especially difficult to pinpoint.

The National Safety Council has a detailed pamphlet outlining the ways that cognitive distraction works, but the essential explanation is simple. When you are concentrating on other decisions or tasks while driving, you are not concentrating on the road. That makes it possible to totally miss visual cues, including stop signs and other cars' taillights.

The effect of cognitive distraction is real, and its role in causing many accidents has become easier to establish as people give up manual and visual distractions by adopting hands-free navigation and cell phone systems - yet still have cognitive distractions.

It is important for all drivers to understand the risks of distraction and pay adequate attention to road conditions. That means knowing when it is time to focus on nothing but the road ahead of you.

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