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You can’t focus: neuroscience explains the dangers of distracted driving

Imagine that you’re driving home from work, stopped in traffic. The light turns green, and you inch forward. The light turns red. Your phone pings with a text alert.

Do you grab your phone to check your messages?

When you’re behind the wheel, you know that your primary goal is to get from point A to point B safely. But you’re very busy, and it may feel like a waste of time to be stuck in traffic, or cruising down a familiar highway.

So you try to make the most of that time by responding to texts, or checking your email.

You’re not multitasking. You’re just not driving.

Neuroscientists, who study the brain and nervous system, have proven that you can’t focus your attention in two different directions.

Multitasking is an illusion. It is not possible for you to focus both on safely operating your vehicle, and on whatever is happening on your mobile device.

Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of The Organized Mind, says we suffer from information overload.  Our constant efforts to accomplish several things at the same time—in a word, multitask— increases the production of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.

The result: your brain is regularly over-stimulated, and rarely focused. It’s much harder to pick out the useful information in a sea of noise.

Your brain behind the wheel

Think about the constant stream of information coming at you when you’re driving. Speed limit signs. Pedestrian crosswalks. Traffic signals. Cars in the opposite lane. Bikes speeding past you.

Identifying the useful information amidst all these moving parts is how you avoid running red lights, hitting pedestrians, or rear-ending the car in front of you.

Many car crashes occur when a driver is distracted—texting, talking, daydreaming—and misses a bit of this information.

The reality is that you can focus your attention on one very specific thing, not everything in your field of vision… Your attention is more like a laser than an overhead light.

-Matt Richtel, author of A Deadly Wandering (

The easiest distraction

Cell phones are not the cause of distracted driving. They’re just the easiest distraction.

Our mobile devices constantly demand our attention. Dividing our attention between what’s happening in front of us and what’s happening on our phones is not only dangerously distracting, it causes more stress.

Daniel Levitin suggests setting times to disconnect yourself: just an hour or two a couple times a day wherein you set your device down and focus on something else.

So disconnect yourself while you’re driving. It’s good for your brain, and you’ll be a better and safer driver.

The attorneys at D’Amore Law Group feel very strongly about distracted driving. In order to raise awareness, they give presentations at many high school driver education courses in the Portland area throughout the year. These classes typically have about 50 students and their parents who attend.

For more on the research of distracted driving, visit (link )

Photo courtesy of Naypong,

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