“Looking” Is Not Always “Seeing”

On a winter afternoon in Michigan, a 20-year-old woman ran a red light while talking on a cell phone. She slammed into another vehicle crossing with the green light directly in front of her, and killed a 12-year-old boy. The vehicle she hit was not the first car through the intersection, but the third or fourth.  An investigation determined the woman never braked and was traveling 48 mph at impact. According to witnesses, the woman was on her phone, “looking” out the windshield as she sped past four cars and a school bus stopped for the red light in the second lane of traffic. Researchers have called this crash a classic case of inattentional blindness caused by the cognitive distraction of a cell phone conversation.

Inattentional blindness refers to our inability to see objects if they're not the primary focus of our attention. This means that people sometimes fail to see major things that are going on right in front of their eyes.

Eyes Wide Shut

According to the National Safety Council, drivers talking on cell phones, even handsfree, can be “looking” through the windshield and miss “seeing” up to half of what’s around them. Yet, the problem of “looking,” but not “seeing” is not limited to cell phone usage.  Any thoughts other than driving in a driver’s mind can be problematic.  The usual list of suspects includes an argument with a spouse, a favorite tune on the radio or daydreaming.  The fatigued driver also often fits into this category.  Our brains simply aren’t equipped to process two dissimilar tasks, each requiring a high level of concentration.  “Seeing” and reacting take brainpower, and if mental “processing” shuts down for even a moment, a driver can unwittingly make a serious mistake.  In other cases, drivers proceed based on their expectations, and they don’t see things because they didn’t expect to see anything.  Drivers can also miss “seeing” things when they focus on one point and their peripheral vision does not spot other dangers.

Driver Responsibilities

As the professional driver, it is your responsibility to focus on driving – and only driving. Federal law prohibits commercial drivers from texting or using hand-held mobile phones while operating a commercial motor vehicle. So, if you must text or make a call while on the road, find a legal, safe place to stop to do so. Be well rested, and get your emotions completely under control before getting behind the wheel. Keep your eyes moving, check your mirrors frequently and scan conditions at least 20 to 30 seconds ahead of you. Make eye contact with other drivers, and if they don’t seem to be aware of your presence, give yourself extra time and space to respond to possible dangers. Slow down and look twice before making a move to help avoid the mistakes of others. Importantly, make sure that you are the driver who is “looking” and “seeing” whenever you are on the road.