Use of mobile phones while driving

The law banning the use of mobile phones in cars has been in place for some time now.  However, there are increasing reports of people disobeying the law.  Draw on theories and research in selective attention to produce an argument which would convince law breakers to stop using their phones while driving.

Road accidents that result due to mobile phones usage while driving, is a serious issue in contemporary urban societies.  Some basic legislation has been introduced to deal with this problem, but their effectiveness is in question.  The academic fraternity is at the forefront of finding solutions to curb this phenomenon.  Over the last decade or so (the decade where mobile phone usage became widespread), plenty of studies have been conducted and the results published in scholarly journals.  Not surprisingly, almost every research undertaking led to the following conclusion: “Mobile phone usage while driving is a serious life hazard” (Rees, et. al., 2001).  The object of the rest of the essay is to highlight some of the salient reasons that led researchers to this conclusion.  It is hoped that the explication of the underlying theories and facts would convince lawbreakers to stop using mobile phones while driving.

Several studies have been conducted to understand the implications of selective attention and driving.  One of the most important of these studies was conducted by Geraint Rees and his team.  Rees proposes that “the level of perceptual load in a display is a crucial factor that cannot be ignored in situations of low perceptual load” (Rees, et. al., 2001).  Attending to a mobile phone while driving falls under the category of ‘situation of low perceptual load’.  In one of the key tests, the research team combined two unrelated tasks – one which requires selective attention and the other working memory.  As per the scientific understanding of selective attention at the time of this experiment,

“The increased load in the working memory task should have increased the processing of visual distracters in the selective attention task.  It was believed that though the two tasks were not related, high load in the working memory task should reduce the availability of working memory for maintaining stimulus priorities in the selective attention task and thus lead to greater intrusion of irrelevant distracters”. (Rees, et. al., 2001)

But the results were a little different.  It turned out that the availability of working memory for actively continuing stimulus-processing priorities is very important for directing attention to relevant rather those irrelevant stimuli; and hence reducing the intrusion of irrelevant distracters.  In a lay person’s terms, he/she cannot maintain full attention to the visual task when the temporary memory is engaged in another activity – like speaking.  This is a very convincing argument against the usage of mobile phones while driving automotives (Rees, et. al., 2001).

Another scientific support against mobile phone usage while driving comes from behavioural and functional imaging results of random participants in the study.  For example, the imaging study reveals that the effects of working memory load in the prefrontal cortex interfere with distracter related tasks in posterior cortices suggesting that the frontal lobes play a significant role in the control of attention.  Hence, the study performed by Rees and his team puts forth conclusive results to the effect that speaking and driving don’t go well together (Rees, et. al., 2001).

Helmholtz is another pre-eminent scientist who conducted various experiments with respect to selective attention.  For example, he provided a detailed and comprehensive analysis of some key experimental paradigms that help measure the way in which attentional instructions can control the rate and precision of visual recognition.  For example,

“Even a single letter presented in an otherwise empty visual field is identified faster and more accurately when it is preceded by a small dot in the same location. Apparently, access to the identity of visual shapes depends on access to their locations, and the dot enhances this localization process.  A similar phenomenon, known as response competition, occurs when the cued object and a nearby object call for opposing motor responses. For example, subjects exhibit slow reaction times when they are attempting to name a red color patch flanked by the word “green.” (Hoffman, 1994)

1 2