Keynote Speaker Peter Hancock

On the Nature of Distraction: Driving Beyond the Biases of Hindsight.


Peter Hancock, Professor, Department of Psychology and Institute for Simulation and Training, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, USA.

Most often we see more through tears than we do through telescopes. So when we look back, it is in retrospect that driver distraction appears to be the evident cause of many, if not the majority, of vehicle crashes. Yet distraction as a causal explanation for any momentary failure implies that there is an obligatory point of attraction from which driver attention is, by some voluntary action or quirkish machination, temporarily and inappropriately dragged away. Such thieves of attention dominate our modern transportation systems. They are to be found both within the vehicle itself and beyond its boundaries. Although we all understand the driver’s attentional obligations, the platitudes we use to promote safety are redolent with only tragically underspecified warnings.

Thus, in general, we tell drivers not to fail but we do not specify how failure is to be avoided on a moment-by-moment basis. Indeed, if drivers adhered rigidly to such platitudes, no organization would ever pay for roadside advertisements, traditional road signage would be virtually useless, and in-vehicle technologies would be banned. But driving, like many other human activities, is one that is overwhelmingly a statisficing process. That is, few individuals consciously seek to optimize their momentary driving performance, they simply do well enough to get the job done. As a result drivers have plenty of spare attention and they are habituated into using it on non-driving related activities.

In the vast majority of conditions they remain unpunished for this liberal multi-tasking. Collectively, we take such behavior as the ‘norm.’ It is only penalized when the planets align and circumstances coalesce unpredictably so that some unwary victim is marked for failure from among the millions of us other potential candidates. Here, I look to present a re-evaluation of some of our basic assumptions about distraction. I will challenge the concept of driver distraction and even the notion of error itself. I aspire to offer a viable alterative from which to approach and perhaps even begin to resolve this vexatious issue.

Hancock, P.A., Mouloua, M., & Senders, J.W. (2008). On the philosophical foundations of driving distraction and the distracted driver. In: Regan, M.A., Lee, J.D., and Young, K.L. (Eds.). Driver Distraction: Theory, Effects and Mitigation. (pp. 11-30), CRC Press. Boca Raton, FL.

Last modified: June 12, 2009
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