by Russ Mitchell / © 2022, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
In the late 1980s, the U.S. Army turned to outside experts to study how pilots of Apache attack helicopters were responding to the torrent of information streaming into the cockpit on digital screens and analog displays. The verdict: not well.
The cognitive overload caused by all that information was degrading performance and raising the risk of crashes, the researchers determined. Over the next decade, the Army overhauled its Apache fleet, redesigning cockpits to help operators maintain focus.
Seeing similarities elsewhere
Cognitive psychologist David Strayer was among those called in to help the Army with its Apache problem. Since then, he has watched as civilian cars and trucks have filled up to an even greater extent with the same sorts of digital interfaces that trained pilots with honed reflexes found so overwhelming: touchscreens, interactive maps, not to mention ubiquitous smartphones. In his lab at the University of Utah, he’s been documenting the deadly consequences.
“Everything we know from pilots being overloaded we can apply to motor vehicles,” Strayer said. But rather than apply it, makers of smartphones and automobiles largely have ignored the research, persistently adding popular but deadly diversions. “They’ve created a candy store of distraction. And we are killing people.”
An increase in accidents
To be sure, new automotive technology also includes innovative safety features. Yet, despite these and other crash-prevention systems, the highway death count continues to rise.
After decades of falling fatality rates, U.S. roads have become markedly more dangerous in recent years. In 2021, motor vehicle crashes killed nearly 43,000 people, a 16-year high.
Theories about why range from bigger vehicles to aggression caused by COVID-era trauma. But no one in the safety field doubts that distracted driving is a main ingredient.
Reported fatalities due to distracted driving have remained flat for the last 10 years, 3,000 to 4,000 a year. But there is good reason to consider those figures a major undercount, as they rely on people admitting they were distracted or a police officer or someone else witnessing a driver with phone in hand before a crash.
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