Neuroscientists believe that technology now threatens our attention span. Constant stimulation by electronic devices may promote widespread attention deficit disorder. Are we really more distractible now and does this constitute a significant danger?

In the February issue of the Monitor on Psychology, Amy Novotank summarizes the research on distraction as it pertains to driving. Data complied by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute show that 80 percent of all auto accidents involved driver inattention.

Back when I took driver’s education in the primitive days before cell phones, I remember Mr. Kemper saying, “Now, I’m going to teach you punks something really important.”

Winking conspiratorially, he pulled out a cigarette, matches and a can of Coke — except it wasn’t Coke.

“Here’s how you light a cigarette while drinking a beverage and steering the car at the same time.”

Speeding up to 80 mph, he put the Coke can between his legs, the cigarette in his mouth and ignited the match while steadying the steering wheel with his legs. He lit the cigarette, flipped the match out the window and snatched the can, taking a big slug.

Being teenagers, we were duly impressed by the sheer recklessness of it all. Once when I was driving, he pulled out a 4-inch firecracker, set it on the dashboard and lit the fuse — just to see how I did under pressure. I suppose teaching driver’s education was a pretty boring profession.

Cell phones rather than firecrackers are the big distraction today, with more than 84 percent of Americans using them. Studies have consistently shown that talking while driving increases the risk for accidents four times. It is estimated that talking on the phone is the equivalent of having a BAC greater than .08 percent.

The American Automobile Association has found that half of all American drivers admit to occasionally using a cell phone while driving. Every year, there are 2,600 deaths and 333,000 injuries related to driver cell phone use. Talking on a phone — even a hands-free one — often creates a type of tunnel vision, and this is why Judie Stone, from Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, says that laws that just prohibit drivers from using handheld cell phones aren’t enough.

Why can’t we stop ourselves? Unfortunately, a ringing telephone is a very powerful inducement. Like Pavlov’s dog, when we hear that bell, there is an automatic compulsion to respond that overrides our better judgment.

Perhaps you have been waiting in line at some business and their phone rings. The person in charge will typically ignore the customers right in front of them to give priority to the caller.

The other day, after reading about all about the dangers of driver cell phone use, I was driving in my car thinking about the enormous cost in terms of human misery when my cell phone rang — and yes, I answered it without a second thought.

Cell phones are not the only electronic hazard for drivers. Writing for smartmoney.com, Stacey L. Bradford says that because of the popularity of shows such as “Pimp My Ride” and hip-hop videos, the auto gadget industry has now grown into a $29 billion-a-year juggernaut, and many of these cutting-edge products also have safety concerns.

Scrolling through your mp3 players for a particular song doubles your probability of an accident, as does looking at the small digital screen that lists song and artist names. Some of the more sophisticated in-dash electronic systems can now play DVDs. In 2002, an Alaska driver killed two people in an auto accident while watching a movie on a dashboard screen.

On-board navigational systems may also constitute danger, especially handheld ones and those which reside in laptops. Typing in a new address in one of these devices while the auto is in motion is about the same as text messaging, which is more dangerous than a cell phone call, increasing the probability of an accident by more than six times.

Last fall, 25 people were killed and 113 were injured when a commuter train collided with a freight train outside Los Angeles. Despite laws prohibiting the use of personal electronic devices by engineers while the train is in motion, the crash investigation showed that the train’s engineer had sent a text message just seconds before the crash.

It is thought that this texting may have been a distraction that contributed to the engineer missing the final stop light. Messaging is a growing problem with more than 600 billion messages sent last year and no end in sight.

Pedestrian safety is also an issue. Australian psychologist Julie Hatfield found that women talking on cell phones while they walked were less alert to traffic and took longer times to cross streets.

Ordinances to outlaw the use of electronic devices in intersections are pending in many U.S. cities. Authorities recently installed padded lampposts to make walking safer for distracted London pedestrians. Unbelievably, 10 percent of Britons say they have walked into some object while text messaging. Maybe they need to issue helmets with British cell phones.

Laws governing the use of electronic devices vary by state. Indiana doesn’t have any restrictions. This year, state Rep. Paul Robertson and state Sen. Dennis Kruse have introduced legislation which makes it an infraction for a person younger than 18 years to operate a motor vehicle while using a handheld telephone. The bills exempt emergencies and operators of medical services vehicles. This proposed law targets teenagers and handheld devices, which maybe may send the unwarranted messages that older drivers are not at risk and that hands-free calling is perfectly safe. (It isn’t.) However, we Hoosiers hate anyone limiting our rights, so maybe this modest bill is at least a start in the right direction.

Even with primary enforcement, laws are not the total solution, since such statues are difficult to enforce. There are attempts to use a “hair of the dog” approach, employing technology to prevent electronic device use under hazardous road conditions and to alert drivers when they are not paying enough attention.

The National Transportation Safety Board has called for public awareness to reduce this public health hazard. Besides programs to educate drivers, there also is a campaign to encourage people being called to insist that the driver either pull over or call later, and to hang up if they don’t.

Most of us might be able to walk and chew gum at the same time but more complex multitasking can be dangerous. I recently learned my lesson when I fell down some steps while foolishly reading my e-mail while wearing my reading glasses. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have demonstrated that our limited cognitive resources become easily stretched to their limits when we multitask. Humans just don’t have enough bandwidth.

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com or 812-206-1234. Check out his latest Welcome to Planet-Terry podcast at www.lifespr.com/podcast.

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