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Eyes on the Road!

February 1, 2011

This covers some of the same ground as this excellent Streetsblog post but since the issue of distracted driving is so important, I think it’s worth adding my meager two cents to the discussion.  I’m by no means an expert on the subject, but I’ve done my homework.  I wish I could say that CBS2 had done the same.

For a TV project I worked on this summer about the brain, I did a lot of reading on the science of attention.  As part of my research I spoke to a number of experts in the field of neurology and cognitive science, including Professor Dan Simons, the man behind this experiment, which you may have already seen:

The big question this test prompts us to ask is why we can have something cross right in front of our field of vision but still fail to notice it?  That’s because we don’t see with our eyes.  We see with our brains.  Anyone who’s ever driven and snapped out of a momentary funk, not able to remember exactly how you stayed on the road, knows this feeling very well, no cellphone required.  Your eyes never left the road, but your brain did.  It’s called inattentional blindness.

In essence, there is no such thing as multi-tasking, only doing a lot of things at once not very well.  That’s why laws mandating hands-free cellphone use miss the mark.  To oversimplify the research, it’s not the act of holding a phone up to your ear and talking into it that makes you distracted, it’s the distraction and inattentional blindness caused by having a conversation with someone who is not in the car.

One of the reasons talking on even a hands-free cellphone may be different from having a conversation with a passenger is that the passenger is more likely to immediately understand why you have to stop talking.  He can see the car that just cut your off or the obstruction in the road you have to navigate around quickly.  When we talk on the phone, we may, even subconsciously, feel less able to stop a conversation and let safety take a priority.  In the case of Tony Aiello, Lou Young, or any reporter who does a “drive-and-file,” there’s even less of a likelihood that he’d be able to drive with his full attention, since the primary goal is to produce a good story.  The normal outbursts one has in a car, even when there’s a passenger–“Oh, fuck, did you just see that?” “Hold that thought for a sec, I gotta get around this guy.”–would have to be tamped down even further in order to make a segment that works on live TV.

No one’s brain is capable of “seeing” the road completely and doing some other sort of mental processing, such as reporting the news.  And I’m not even trying to be snarky.  The Kent Brockman or Anchorman jokes may write themselves for some of these guys’ stories, but you wouldn’t want the world’s best heart surgeon talking on the phone while he’s doing his job either.  There is little to no correlation between intelligence or skill and an ability to overcome this phenomenon, as Professor Simons writes about in his book in a thrilling story about airline pilots, who presumably are a lot smarter than the average TV reporter.

When you do two tasks at once both suffer from a lack of attention.  If one of those tasks involves driving a vehicle, that’s a recipe for trouble since the consequences of crashing a vehicle are far more serious than dropping the F bomb on live TV.  Driving a news van through a busy city street or on a snowy suburban neighborhood while talking to camera, paying attention to your segment’s timing and pacing, and then throwing it back to the studio is a tragedy, and possibly a crime, waiting to happen.  If it’s any comfort to whomever is unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of Mobile 2 when it causes an accident, it’s that it will all be caught on tape.

Ratings gimmicks like these, especially ones that trivialize the real problem of distracted driving, are one reason television news is mostly seen as a joke.  You don’t typically see reputable news outlets touting the technology they use to collect the news; no one expects the Economist to run a full-page ad showing off its new high-powered computers and I have yet to see a BBC World promo showing me their amazing new cameras.  Those outlets typically focus on the story, the news, that they’re reporting.  But when your news gathering skills are so thin perhaps all that’s left it to run promos about your tricked out van, never mind the danger.  Edward R. Murrow, wherever he is, is probably listening to NPR.

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