Our sense that helps us concentrate while driving gets interrupted when we text behind the wheel, resulting in accidents, finds a new study.
Led by Ioannis Pavlidis from the University of Houston (UH) and Robert Wunderlich from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI), the research studied how drivers behave when they are absent minded, emotionally charged or engaged in texting.
The study looked at 59 volunteers who were asked to drive the same segment of highway four times — under ‘normal conditions’ of being focused on driving, when distracted with cognitively challenging and emotionally charged questions and when preoccupied with texting.
In all three interventions, the researchers found that the drivers’ handling of the wheel became jittery. However, it resulted in significant lane deviations and unsafe driving only in the case of texting. In the case of absent-minded and emotionally charged distractions, jittery steering resulted in straighter trajectories with respect to a normal drive and safer driving.
“A likely explanation for this paradox is the function performed by a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC,” Pavlidis said. “ACC is known to automatically intervene as an error corrector when there is conflict. In this case, the conflict comes from the cognitive, emotional and sensorimotor, or texting, stressors. This raises the levels of physiological stress, funneling ‘fight or flight’ energy to the driver’s arms, resulting in jittery handling of the steering wheel.”
What happens when the brain’s ACC automatically intervenes, Pavlidis said, is that it counterbalances any strong jitter to the left with an instant equally strong jitter to the right and vice versa. The end effect of this forceful action is nullification of any veering to the left or the right of the lane and, thus, very straight driving.
For ACC to perform this corrective function, it needs support from the driver’s eye-hand coordination loop. If this loop breaks, which it does when the driver texts, then ACC fails and the jittery handling of the steering wheel is left unchecked, resulting in a significant lane deviation and possible accident.
“The driver’s mind can wander and his or her feelings may boil, but a sixth sense keeps a person safe at least in terms of veering off course,” Pavlidis said. “What makes texting so dangerous is that it wreaks havoc into this sixth sense. Self-driving cars may bypass this and other problems, but the moral of the story is that humans have their own auto systems that work wonders, until they break.”
Pavlidis and Wunderlich think the scientific and manufacturing community can benefit from their team’s study.
The study appears in Scientific Reports.
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