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The hidden danger of looking but not seeing

Dave Wickenhauser on Wed, March 13, 2019

Last Updated: Wed, March 13, 2019

Photo by Quintin Gellar

Distraction is the nemesis of anyone trying to observe safe driving practices. We all know that. Cellphones, GPSs, ELDs, lane-change warnings, etc., all contribute to taking away a truck driver's attention while on the road.

But what many don't realize is that the problem goes much deeper than being distracted by gadgets and such. There is actually a science behind this, and it has a name – inattentional blindness.

The short version of what inattentional blindness means is that it is simply concentrating on one thing while driving while something else is happening right under our noses. The driver could literally be staring right at something, but the brain doesn't "see" it or register that it is there.

FleetOwner.com explains that this phenomenon got a name back in 1992 when researchers at MIT labeled it attentional blindness. Over the years, the name morphed into inattentional blindness, but the psychological process is the same.

They performed experiments that showed our vision was controlled by what we were focusing on in our "mind's eye," to the detriment of seeing what was actually there.

They offered the example of a truck driver sitting at an intersection, concentrating on traffic, waiting to make a left turn, but then who nearly hits a motorcycle that was right in front of him. Even though the truck driver knew the motorcycle was there, his inattentional blindness temporarily blotted out that fact in favor of concentrating on making a safe left turn.

And that defect in our seeing also has a name – Looked-but-failed-to-see, or LBFTS.

The classic LBFTS test is available as a video on YouTube. View the short video, then leave comments on the forum about your experience.

The neurological and psychological reasoning for this is because our brains are not wired to process every single bit of stimulus impinging on our senses. Without this cognitive filter we would be overwhelmed by information and be unable to perform at all.

The matter is made worse in the modern truck cab, as well, by a driver giving his attention to those aforementioned gadgets; which is ironic considering many of them are in place to add to safety, not to distract from it.

Inattentional blindness is also exacerbated by conditions somewhat unique to commercial drivers. Most drivers are familiar with a phenomenon that has been dubbed white-line fever, or highway hypnosis. That's where the monotony of driving for long periods on a boring stretch of highway causes the driver to become inattentive or easily distracted.

Not surprisingly, motorcycles have become the "lab rats" of inattentional blindness research. That's because, "Motorcycles appear to be very low on the priority list for the brain when it is filtering information," according to Human Factors researcher Kristen Pammer, as reported in a Science Daily article.

She said that drivers will look in the direction of an oncoming motorcycle, even looking directly at one, and still pull out into its path. Apparently, after our brains prioritize all of the sensory data it assigns a low priority to the presence of a motorcycle. It becomes "invisible."

The obvious solution, according to Pammer, is that, "By putting motorcyclists higher on the brain 'radar' of the driver, hopefully drivers will be more likely to see them. In the meantime, we need to be more vigilant, more active, and more conscious when driving."

Beyond trying to become more vigilant to watching out for those motorcycles, there is not really a cure for inattentional blindness. Our bodies simply would not be able to function if our brains forced us to react to every single bit of stimulus our eyes took in.

DOT/CSA Insights provides this list of ways to try to counteract inattentive driving:

  • Encourage “mindful driving.”
  • Commercial drivers need to cultivate a proper attentive mindset.
  • Drivers should not take any phone calls when driving.
  • Train drivers in proper mapping and route planning techniques.
  • Drivers should know how to manage breaks and take them when needed.
  • Motors carriers need strict, enforced policies on driver use of new technologies while driving.
  • Motors carriers need to investigate and deploy new technologies where appropriate for their particular operational needs.
  • Motor carriers need Fatigue Management Programs, according to the NTSB.

Sources: Fleet Owner, Science Daily, DOT/CSA Insights, YouTube

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Advice For New Truck Drivers Distracted Driving Safe Driving Tips Truckers Technology Trucking Accidents

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