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Exploring the role of healthy distraction on driver performance

Pammer, K (Peer reviewed)

Driver Psychology / Human Factors

ARSC conference 2015

Looked-but-failed-to-see crashes describe car crashes in which drivers are apparently looking directly at an unexpected object on the road yet report failing to see it, resulting in a collision._x000D_

A cognitive mechanism that explains these crashes is inattentional blindness (IB); a phenomenon that occurs when observers fail to notice an unexpected, though clearly visible object in their visual field when their attention is engaged elsewhere. We have been conducting a series of experiments in which we use a static, driving-related, IB task. The primary task involves making safety decisions about briefly-presented driving scenarios. After a given number of trials, an unexpected stimulus, e.g., a person, animal or object, is placed on the side of the road. We have demonstrated differential processing of unexpected stimuli, suggesting that drivers make broad attentional sweeps of all objects when driving. In a separate stream of research, we have also demonstrated that attention can increase for an unexpected stimulus in IB in the presence of distraction. Distraction refers to an additional stimulus that draws attention away from a primary task, however these results suggest that task-irrelevant distractions have the potential to facilitate conscious processing of unexpected stimuli such as hazards in driving. Combining the two streams of research, it is possible that transient distraction when driving might facilitate attention, suggesting that some distraction may be a good thing. These results have important implications for understanding driver distraction, as well as models of attention where the effect of distraction on attention may reflect a U-shaped function._x000D_