Sat Nav Is Distracting, Even When You're Not Looking At It

October 1, 2012

Mapping technology is hugely important nowadays. (Well, except Apple Maps, which is hugely hilarious.) But a new study implies that mapping devices can actually inhibit drivers' ability to see what's right in front of them -- and not for the reasons you think.

According to The Telegraph, the study was carried out at University College London. Researchers began by showing volunteers an image, then took the image away. They asked the subjects to keep that image in mind and told them that they would shortly notice a flash of light. Oddly, scientists discovered that the test subjects often didn't notice the flash.

While conducting the experiment, researchers also scanned participants' brains. They discovered that the part of the brain responsible for processing new visual information was noticeably less active while test subjects tried to recall the image.

As a control, the scientists ran another test without showing subjects an image beforehand. They discovered that when volunteers weren't focused on remembering an image, they were far more likely to notice the flash of light.

What this suggests is that drivers may have difficulty seeing obstacles in the road -- cars, pedestrians, debris, etc. -- when they're trying to remember an image from a mapping device. It's an effect known as "inattentional blindness". 


To us, this sounds a lot like the arguments that the National Transportation Safety Board has made regarding hands-free calling. In a nutshell, the NTSB says that it doesn't matter whether drivers take calls using a hand-held cell phone or with a hands-free device like a Bluetooth earpiece. The distraction isn't the device, it's the call. A driver may be looking directly at the road, but if her mind is elsewhere, it's dangerous.

Similarly, the test subjects at University College London were mentally distracted but physically unencumbered. Provided their vision was up to snuff, reason would indicate that they should've noticed the flash of light. But they didn't.

The jury is still out on these topics, but it appears that inattention may be just as dangerous for drivers as physical distractions like looking away from the road or taking a hand off the wheel to hold a cell phone to your ear.

Have you experienced "inattentional blindness"? Feel free to share your thoughts on the matter in the comments below.

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