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The Risks of Distraction

If you’ve any lingering doubts about what can happen to a driver distracted by a phone (hands-free or hand-held, from the brain’s point of view it’s essentially the same), consider the recent case of a fatal plane/helicopter collision over the Hudson River in New York.

As noted by the Wall Street Journal:

The board’s data reinforce earlier indications that a distracted controller, engaged in a personal phone call while on duty and juggling various tasks, failed to keep proper track of the small, propeller-powered plane. The controller, Carlyle Turner, later told investigator he didn’t see or hear radar-system warnings about an impending collision, the documents indicate.

According to a transcript released Wednesday, Mr. Turner was on a personal call for about 2 1/2 minutes. Five seconds before impact, he hung up by telling the female friend on the call: “Let me straighten … stuff out.”

That five seconds number struck me, for I had just heard, at the Edmonton conference, from a human factors researcher mentioning a figure noted in one study that the time between the onset of conditions that needed response and the crash itself was in most cases five seconds or less (which intuitively makes sense).

But the main point is that here was a highly trained professional, engaged in a personal call, which subsequently caused him to miss something that should have been on his radar, as it were — particularly as alarms were sounded. It’s likely his eyes were even on the vessels in question, as he realized, too late, however (owing to divided attention), he had to “straighten stuff out.” Now extrapolate that to the less highly trained drivers on the (more crowded) road, brimming with overconfidence, and you begin to see the problem. And yes, there were other factors behind the crash — failure to observe protocol by at least one pilot, lack of prescriptive glasses by another controller — but this is the point in implementing redundant safety systems: An error can be observed by someone else and corrected, the same way a non-distracted driver can (sometimes) compensate for a distracted driver.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, April 29th, 2010 at 2:37 pm and is filed under Traffic safety. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 Responses to “The Risks of Distraction”

  1. Dan Says:

    Hi Tom, I have another example of how distracting a cell phone can be. If you have ever been in a hot air balloon or seen one fly they are notoriously slow moving but while our pilot was on his cell phone during a flight last year we hit a tree. Now I know they like to tickle the tree tops as part of the flight but his red face told us that our suspicions were correct and we were about 15 to 20 feet lower than he would have liked. I always look forward to your updates.
    Regards, Dan

  2. Jason Says:

    A nerdy confession:

    I have been known to play online computer games. The kind of ‘first person shooter’ where you play against other real people from around the world, and navigate a complex 3d environment while looking out for hazards, and responding.

    I can vouch from experience that if i get a phone call in the middle of a game, I will spend the duration of that conversation dying repeatedly (In these real-time games, it’s not possible to pause).

    I was very surprised to find that the part of the brain that processes visual and spatial relations is also the one that processes chit chat and making plans.

    Now if I get a phone call I navigate my character off into a dark corner and hide, rather than risk trying to multi-task…

  3. Omri Says:

    You know, that’s an interesting way to demonstrate the issue, Jason.

  4. stacey2545 Says:

    Jason, you’ve now convinced me that even violent video games may have redeeming social value. ;)

    I note, however, you didn’t specify whether you applied that lesson to the real world.

  5. Jason Says:

    Stacey – no I don’t text and drive! or text and ride for that matter…

    I think any proponent of outlawing distracted driving could usefully employ computer simulations to show its effects. Wobbly driving, poor reaction times and missed stop signs would all show up more strongly in a highly monitored virtual study than in the real world where near misses aren’t counted!

  6. ATC Says:

    I understand your premise on distraction but the example and particularly the following comment are a “fail” as the corrected NTSB report stated that the helicopter was not on RADAR and not visible to the Controller.

    ” But the main point is that here was a highly trained professional, engaged in a personal call, which subsequently caused him to miss something that should have been on his radar, as it were — particularly as alarms were sounded. It’s likely his eyes were even on the vessels in question, as he realized, too late, however (owing to divided attention), he had to “straighten stuff out.””

    As reference for my comments:

    http://www.aviationtoday.com/regions/usa/NTSB-Revises-Hudson-Mid-Air-Assessment-NATCA-Off-Crash-Probe_34602.html

    http://www.ntsb.gov/Speeches/hersman/daph090916.html

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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