On October 21, AgeLab researcher Bryan Reimer visited transportation engineering graduate students at the University of Massachusetts as part of the New England University Transportation Center consortium. He discussed his findings in physiological measurements of cognitive workload. Reimer explained that the car has become the “ultimate mobile device” with various technologically advanced features that both help and hinder our driving performance.
It may seem obvious that when our attention is divided, our driving suffers, but how can we quantitatively measure these changes in attention? Reimer and his team collected data on skin conductance, heart rate and gaze dispersion to a minute degree. In a video he showed the students, an alert driver demonstrates constant and sweeping eye movement while fully focusing on traffic. He switches lanes often and is clearly alert to his surroundings. When the researchers engaged the driver in simple cognitive tasks, the driver’s gaze steadies and he no longer switches lanes.
The bottom line? “We do not multitask well,” said Reimer. And it takes us some time to fully focus again: “In the two minutes post-cognitive task, skin conductance is still elevated,” he explained. In other words, the effects of a distraction linger even after the task is completed.