If you think you can drive, keeping your eyes on the road, and focusing on other activities as you will, while also being cautious of the road, think again.
However easy driving might become to experienced people, caution is still required, and drivers are to beware of letting their attention be held by other activities, according to new findings presented at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference in the UK.
The authors of the paper, led by Gillian Murphy and Ciara Greene, emphasise the importance of keeping one’s attention on the road while driving since our ability to focus is not unlimited. Such is postulated by the perceptual load theory of attention, according to which the amount of attention we have been endowed with falls within a certain limit, and that if we reach the maximum, we will be incapable of processing other data. This implies that directing one’s attention primarily on the road is necessary to prevent any accident.
If this is true, then, how does listening to the radio while driving affect our chances of going beyond the limit? This is what the team of researchers wanted to find out. Their aim was to determine whether information passing through the sense of hearing could influence the awareness of the sense of sight. In other words, does driving while having the radio on generate unwanted effects on the awareness level pertaining to sight?
The occurrence of these effects was measured with a driving simulator in which 18 participants were to listen to the radio, and identify when the voice of the traffic reporter changed from male to female (something requiring a small amount of attention; low load) while another group of 18 volunteers had to listen for information about a specific road (requiring a large quantity of attention; high load).
What the participants did not know was that the researchers would occasionally surprise them with an elephant or gorilla displayed on the side of the road by the simulator.
The results are quite surprising: regardless of the information type being broadcast to the drivers, some would not notice the huge animals. 71% of them noticed the animal in the low-load group while only 23% saw it in the high-load one.
Another finding is that the latter group performed less well at remembering yield signals.
The authors, therefore, conclude that anything holding our attention hostage can be a problem. They recommend for drivers to be conscious of the limits of their attention. Just keeping the eyes on the road is insufficient – rather, we should direct our very attention on the road.