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FSU Study: Phone Alerts as Distracting as Actually Messaging

It’s well known that sending and reading text messages while driving is a danger. So too is talking on the phone, even with a hands-free model. textingdriving

But now, a new study by researchers at Florida State University reveals there is another equally distracting aspect of our smart phones: The alerts.

That simple “ding!” or song ringtone or even a quite vibration can impair a person’s ability to focus on a specific task – like driving.

The study is entitled, “The Attentional Cost of Receiving a Cell Notification,” and was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. It’s purported to be the first study analyzing the effect of cell phone notifications on performance.

Results of the research are interesting for the fact these alerts are typically very short in duration – a few seconds at most. However, the effect is the initiation of thoughts that are irrelevant to the task at hand. That kind of wandering of the mind, researchers say, has the potential to result in reduced performance. In fact, even when the participants of the study did not interact directly with their smart phone, just the notification of their phone was enough to distract them.

The reason has to do with the myth of the multitask. The reality is, people’s capacity for splitting tasks is limited. When a person is driving and there is suddenly another demand on their attention, it can be problematic for the driver.

Government statistics indicates 154 billion text messages are sent in the U.S. every month. In 2013, at least 3,155 people were killed and another 424,000 injured in motor vehicle crashes that involved distracted drivers. Those are low estimates considering distraction isn’t as easily traceable following an accident as, say, alcohol impairment.

Even drivers who were distracted may not admit to it.

This study closely examined the performance of numerous subjects who were engaged in computer-related tasks. One group of subjects had their phones nearby, and were alerted to a number of calls and text messages on their phones. A control group did not have their phones nearby.

Those who were alerted three times or more to a message or call were three times more likely to make an error than those who weren’t, study authors found. Simply receiving a notification and not responding was found to be just as distracting as actually sending or reading the text message.

One flaw of the study is that it did not involve actual driving, but it’s not a stretch to translate what these results mean to people behind the wheel.

While many distracted driving campaigns focus on encouraging people to pull over to respond to calls or text messages, this study indicates the absolute best thing to do is to turn the phone off entirely and put it of sight while driving. That’s because even waiting to read or respond to a text or call can in and of itself be a distraction if the driver’s mind is not focused on the road ahead. The task of waiting to respond requires the brain to remember to perform an action in the future, and this has been found in other studies to cause performance disruption in the course of completing another task at the same time.

Call Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, at 1-800-646-1210.

Additional Resources:

Cell phone alerts may be driving you to distraction, July 9, 2015, Press Release, Florida State University

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