A study published by Scientific Reports has found that the brain’s ‘auto-pilot’ function is turned off when texting and driving.

A NEW STUDY published in Scientific Reports has revealed that an autopilot function in the brain that keeps distracted drivers from veering into oncoming traffic can be short-circuited when you try and send a text while driving. The report’s authors say they subjected 59 people to a range of stressors, including emotional, cognitive and mixed.

“We delivered the cognitive and emotional stressors through appropriate oral questionnaires. We delivered the sensorimotor stressor in the form of texting while driving. For mixed stressors or absence thereof, subject behaviours were measured at two time scales – sustained engagement without exogenous surprises versus reactions to startling events,” the report’s authors said.

“We hereby studied a comprehensive set of stressors through a three-level causal decomposition (arousal → reaction → error) in long/uneventful versus short/eventful time scales, arriving at intriguing conclusions about driving behaviours.”

The stressors were delivered via oral questions from a passenger/researcher in the car with the driver, as well as “texting trivialities”. The study’s authors revealed that when the driver was dealing with orally delivered stressors, the steering did become “jittery” but not to the same extent as when the driver was dealing with a text message.

The authors suggest, therefore, that the autopilot function in the brain is switched off when the driver is distracted by a physical and cognitive action. 

Lead researcher Dr Ioannis Pavlidis, from the University of Houston in Texas, US, said: “The driver’s mind can wander, and his or her feelings may boil, but a sixth sense keeps a person safe at least in terms of veering off course.

“What makes texting so dangerous is that it wreaks havoc into this sixth sense. Self-driving cars may bypass this and other problems, but the moral of the story is that humans have their own auto-systems that work wonders, until they break.”

Question: Do you think being caught driving and texting should be an instant loss of licence?


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  1. Will the threat of an instant loss of license be enough to stop people texting while driving? We threaten the loss of license with demerit points system with the consumption of alcohol while driving. Arguably, both are as bad as each other, both have the capacity to kill and maim others yet with one, demerit points system is enacted and it still doesn’t stop anyone from doing it.

  2. A substantial fine, and confiscate the phone. (no return). Licence may be required for job, so give second chance on licence, cancel if caught a second or third time. Target the phone and the phone account (i.e..put a bar on the account for a period of time, so it can’t be used, even with another phone)

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