Cool technology can’t change your brain

I know I’ve harped on this topic before, but it seems like every week brings another new device that poses a threat to our safety, especially on the highway. It’s been years now since researchers documented that our brains cannot successfully engage in two complex cognitive tasks at the same time…like driving and talking or texting. It’s also been years since safety experts (including, I think, the government) ruled that manufacturers couldn’t put video screens in the front seat where drivers could be distracted by them. Since then, we’ve seen the advent of GPS screens mounted right beside the steering wheel. As soon as tablet computers arrived, an inventor started selling a gadget you could attach to the car’s dashboard that would hold your tablet beside the wheel, as well. All bad ideas, based on the scientific research that clearly shows that these devices siphon off so much of our attention that we fail to see what’s happening right in front of us on the highway. The scientists even have a name for it: inattention blindness. It happens in the car, whether we’re using a hand-held or hands-free cell phone or whatever. It also happens when people walk down the street talking or texting or watching videos or playing video games on a cell phone. Emergency rooms have treated hundreds of people who stepped into traffic or crashed into a building, a bus, or another person because their attention was diverted to some device.

The latest entry into this hazardous parade of electronic devices is a system that will project social media, text messages, video chats and the oh-so-helpful GPS maps onto the windshield of your car. Despite the science already available explaining why all of this is a bad idea, the folks looking to make money on these devices argue that we will, in fact, be safer using their gear, because we can enjoy all of the stuff projected on the windshield and still be looking forward at the street in front of us. Again, they either don’t or won’t understand that where your eyes are facing isn’t the essential concern here. It’s where your attention is focused, and our brains simply can’t bring enough attention to the driving task if we’re concentrating on all of the fascinating stuff on the “screen” and pumping into our brain through our bluetooth or earbuds.

The number of victims created by inattention blindness (impairing motorists who surround us every time we venture onto the highway) is growing. The number of tragedies these days explained by the fact that a driver couldn’t resist the urge to enjoy some wondrous device while at the wheel of what could become a killing machine is heartbreaking. We lost two very dear friends (on their way home from their daughter’s college graduation) because a teenaged driver using his cell phone triggered an accident that claimed our loved ones’ lives. If the thought of living with the fact that you killed someone because you couldn’t deny yourself the “kick” of playing with an electronic device while driving doesn’t convince people to stop doing this, then I don’t know what will.

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