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A study out of Western Washington University is the latest in a long list of experiments that demonstrate just how distracted the human mind can be when focusing on a mental task like talking on a cellphone. In psychology, this phenomenon is called “inattentional blindness” and it’s the reason that cellphone usage should be banned for drivers altogether – both hand-held and hands-free. It’s not only the physical dialing or texting on a phone that distracts drivers and causes accidents but the conversations themselves. When the mind is busy focusing on something, even the most obvious things can escape our attention.

Not convinced? See if you can count the number of basketball passes the team in white makes when there is another team in black shirts running around them distracting you in this awareness test (video) from the UK.

Although Ontario’s new law banning hand-held devices is a good start, it’s simply not enough if we want to prevent distraction-caused accidents. Besides concerns about the actual impact of bans and their enforcement, I think what truly needs to happen is a movement that makes people aware of the consequences of driving while distracted and makes it socially unacceptable, much like the anti-drunk driving movement has accomplished in the past two decades. Maybe a TV spot showing a mom driving her children to an activity, the kids buckled snuggly in the backseat while mom is having an animated conversation on her cellphone. The camera angle switches to an upcoming street light, which turns quickly from yellow to red. Mom doesn’t notice and continues into the intersection, where the SUV is broadsided by a fast-moving transport truck. Squealing tires, crunching metal, shattering glass, and then the commercial fades to black while a car horn blows continuously. “Driving while distracted kills” in big bold letters. That kind of thing.

I would like to think I’m a pretty good driver. I’m courteous, careful and drive within an acceptable range of the speed limit (or “speed suggestion”, as I like to call it). And I’ve never been in an accident that was my fault. But I will admit, there are times that I am perhaps a little less attentive than I should be. Whether it’s changing the radio station, searching for my sunglasses in the depths of my purse or just contemplating the meaning of life while on the road, there are times that I am not paying as much attention as I know I should.

I understand that this is a problem and that many accidents are caused by inattentiveness. What I don’t understand is the necessity of reminding people about this using signs ON THE ROAD. This is where trying to be helpful crosses into self-defeating territory, as far as I’m concerned.

I was approaching Baseline Road driving south on Woodroffe Avenue and I saw one of those large, lit signs up ahead that they tend to use in construction when lanes are closing. From a distance, I couldn’t see what was written and I got all flustered (as I tend to do), worrying about whether I would have to move over and whether I would be able to turn where I wanted. I certainly wasn’t paying much attention to careful driving as I strained to see what was written on the sign as I approached. Turns out, the sign was there simply to remind drivers that this intersection is a high-collision one and that we should all drive carefully. Well thank you for that. I’m sure the person that was behind me as I slowed down and hesitated thanks you too.

Toronto has a series of signs above their highway system to warn drivers about upcoming traffic problems and slowdowns, which I think is a great idea that I would love to see implemented in Ottawa (“Game night – good luck getting home before 8:00 p.m.”). But I’ll never forget driving past one that proclaimed “Careful driving requires your full attention.” And what was I doing while reading this helpful sign? Right – not watching the road.

Why I’m here

My name is Sonya. I live with my husband and our cat in the suburbs of Ottawa. I started this journal to document my thoughts and experiences and share them with friends, family and anyone else who happens to pass this way. My hope is that it will help to keep me focused on the simple things I value most in life and, above all, keep me writing.

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