Being distracted by cell phones is a well-known driving hazard. On the other hand, driver fatigue is responsible for tens of thousands of accidents each year. Paul Atchley and Mark Chan from the University of Kansas tested whether adding a bit of verbal distraction to a drive could yield a net positive result. Their cautious answer is that it can.
The researchers put 45 volunteers in a driving simulator for 30 minutes. Their ‘route’ was a flat, monotonous stretch of highway. Along the way, each driver ‘passed’ billboards and other visual memory tests. Two groups were given the task of free associating one-word responses to randomly selected words, one group for the entire drive, and the second group only for the last part of the drive. A third group drove without being given any additional verbal task. Each group was presented with occasional road hazards to avoid. At the end of the 30 minutes, the participants were asked to recall as many billboards as they could. They were also evaluated for their ability to stay in their lanes and for how much they had to correct direction with the steering wheel.
The drivers who were distracted by the verbal task performed slightly better than those who were not playing word association. The difference was the greatest during the last five minutes of the drive when everyone was the most bored by the route.
I should caution that the differences were not great, and that this was a small study. In contrast, there are many studies showing the dangers of talking on cell phones while driving and even worse while texting. However, this new data does suggest that drivers’ fatigue can be even more dangerous, and that adding a bit of distraction might actually help drivers to stay focused on the road.