By Paul Atchley, PhD, eDriving’s Brain Scientist Advisor
For Mother’s Day this year, my spouse and I drove 800 miles from Florida to see my mother who lives by herself in rural Virginia. The twelve-hour journey reminded me of how the current crisis has affected the traffic on our roadways. Traffic was relatively light both directions and I started to wonder how these times would be reflected in crash statistics.
But on the return journey, I was reminded that there is never a good time for complacency. In South Carolina, on a daytime freeway with light traffic and sunny weather, we passed a horrific single tractor-trailer crash. In the median, full of pine trees, sat a tractor-trailer that had left the freeway, and hit a stand of pines. The cab was crushed and open to the elements. The numerous patrol vehicles and officers that surrounded the cab told a story of an investigation in progress. There was no sign of a driver or medical responders.
In that brief glance it was impossible to tell the circumstances of the crash. But I was left wondering why a tractor-trailer would end up off road on a clear freeway, light with traffic in the middle of the day. My thoughts turned to distraction and how we must remain constantly vigilant, even now.
While I will never know what happened on that freeway with that driver, it is not hard to imagine someone thinking that an emptier road is a safer road. And in these times, with so many things to be concerned about, it would not come as a surprise that a professional driver might be even more tempted to connect with family while driving, or check the latest news, or be distracted in some other way.
During the COVID-19 crisis, in place of real-life interactions, many of us have turned to technology, whether it be for professional or personal reasons; and will it be more difficult to put that technology away when you get back behind the wheel? Added to this, almost all of the adult population will have had more on their minds over the last few weeks; and a distracted mind is not a safe mind when you’re on the road. Many people will be getting less sleep than usual, some may be taking more medication. It’s important to remember that these additional “impairments” have potential to further increase distraction.
So, what’s the answer? It might be more difficult than normal to avoid added distractions at this time, but there is never a safe time to take risks on the road. Driving always requires an absolute focus on the task in hand, and – even though there may be more challenges – this is as important now as ever before. Maybe even more so.
Yes, the risk of illness is a real one, but the risk of fatal crashes also remains. And for drivers on our freeways, that risk is ever present, COVID-19 or not. I still see that tractor cab, torn apart, and hope the driver was able to survive the wreck. And I hope if they are, they remind others to always stay focused on the road. There is never a safe time to be distracted.
About Paul Atchley
eDriving’s Brain Scientist Advisor Paul Atchley, PhD, is the University of South Florida’s Senior Associate Vice President and Dean of Undergraduate Studies. As a Professor of Psychology, he specializes in research in cognitive factors, including the implications of multitasking on driving.