Your brain distracted: what happens behind the wheel

Dr. Linda Hill, a clinical professor at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, researches driving safety issues and explained why cellphones are much more distracting than, for example, the radio or a passenger.

'You’ve just gone the length of a football field blind,' says distracted driving researcher

Dr. Linda Hill says hands-free cellphone use can be just as cognitively distracting as talking on the phone. (David Horemans/CBC)

Vancouver police handed out nearly 2,000 tickets last month to people using an electronic device while driving, despite a warning from ICBC that distracted driving now kills more people than impaired driving — about 78 deaths on B.C. roads each year.

So why are cellphones and driving such a dangerous combination?

Dr. Linda Hill, a clinical professor at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, researches driving safety issues and explained why cellphones are much more distracting than, for example, the radio or a passenger.

There are three main categories of distractions in the car, she told CBC host of On The Coast Stephen Quinn, and cellphones hit all of them.

"Visual — that's obvious, it takes our eyes off the road,"  Hill said.

"Manual is when we are using our phones to manipulate them and cognitive where our mind is elsewhere even when we have our eyes open and looking ahead."

Not looking at the road while driving is obviously dangerous, Dr. Hill said.

"If you try typing 'home in ten' which you think is a short text, it actually takes four and half seconds," she said. "If you are driving 90 kilometres an hour, you've just gone the length of a football field blind."

Tunnel vision

Cognitive distraction while driving is more underestimated, she said, and it's the kind of distraction that can cause a driver to miss a turn off, drive through a stop sign or run a red light.

You can be looking ahead but still not seeing what is happening, Hill explained, as a kind of "tunnel vision" or "inattention blindness."

"That kind of inattention carries over for a number of seconds, up to 30 seconds, after a text or a phone call is over. So sorry, trying to catch your text at the light — just not a safe thing to do," she said.

The same cognitive distraction can happen even with a hands-free phone, Hill said, and just because it's legal doesn't mean it's safe.

"It is the same thing as holding it in your hand — it's engaging your brain, it's taking your mind off the road and it increases crash risks two to four fold," she said.

With files from On The Coast