Combining technologies helps us understand the risk

Researchers in Canada have combined two technologies – driving simulation and functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain – to identify the parts of the brain involved in a variety of real-world driving maneuvers.

Minimal brain activation was found during simple driving tasks such as turning right (in the US, turning left in Australia), consistent with the ‘automation’ of some basic driving skills.

Importantly, the team also identified the parts of the brain active during complex driving tasks such as turning across oncoming traffic (ie turning left in the US, turning right in Australia) while distracted. We are well aware of the role distraction plays in crash risk, and so to simulate talking on hands-free phone participants were asked to perform an auditory task.

Distracted driving resulted in a considerably different ‘driving map’. The research findings “suggest that the distracted brain sacrificed areas in the…brain important for visual attention and alertness to recruit enough brain resources to perform a secondary, cognitive task.” These findings are also of particular interest to those developing and adminstering fitness-to-drive assessments: the findings suggesting that assessments should incorporate a variety of driving circumstances of increasing complexity, including requiring the driver to converse with the Examiner.

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