Thoughts on Distracted Driving

I really dislike driving cars. I know this is usually a blog about flying, but being a pilot has focused my dislike of driving to levels I didn’t know existed. Over on his blog, the NTSB Chairman posted about the problem of “Distracted Driving” and an interesting observation about so-called “hands-free devices.” According to several scientific studies, hands-free devices increase our ability to keep our hands on the wheel but do nothing about the equally (if not more) dangerous aspect of cognitive distraction (“not paying attention”).

For example, a few years ago we investigated an accident where the top of a bus carrying high school students was sheared off because the driver drove under a bridge with inadequate clearance. The driver was involved in a heated conversation with his sister using a hands-free phone. Investigators asked if he noticed the signs before the bridge that indicated that the bridge was too low for his vehicle. He not only missed seeing the signs, but he did not even notice the bridge until after he sheared off the top of the bus, injuring several students!

Driving a vehicle is usually a fairly easy task, except in the worst weather conditions, and we do it so much that it becomes routine, repetitive, almost mindless. I’m sure many of you couldn’t name many specific details about your drive home from work today. But despite this routine, driving a car is a very complex task. It’s never actually that repetitive or routine. Maybe the roads we take are the same, or the time of day you’re driving on them, but you’re probably not sharing those roads with the exact same group of drivers at any one time. The speeding, slowing, honking, doddling, belching mass of humanity on our roads is a variable that requires every bit of our attention to keep our own cars from hitting any of theirs.

What scares me is the number of drivers I see that are blatantly on their phones. I don’t even mean hands-free devices–they’re just driving the car with one hand and holding the phone to their face with the other. This means that the “human variable” of driving is much more dangerous–mindless zombies that aren’t capable of paying attention–and I treat them that way, often giving a nearby car a wide berth if I know the driver is on the phone. In New Jersey, as in many places, it is illegal to operate a handheld phone while driving, so there are other issues to consider, such as increased enforcement. But even without enforcement, we all have to understand that, handheld or hands-free, talking on the phone and driving a car are incompatible activities. It’s like driving in dense fog: your reactions will be delayed and even physical senses like peripheral vision will be impaired because your immediate attention is busy trying to understand and respond to the conversation.

People sometimes ask me if I’m ever scared of flying, and I usually respond that no I am not scared of flying, but I am scared of driving. At least in an airplane the problems are usually my own–both to cause and to deal with–and I can train and study to make better decisions and to fly better in an emergency. But in a car, with all the millions of human variables out there, who knows when one of them will not be paying attention at the wrong time. There’s nothing I can do about that but redouble my own attentiveness and to implore you all to consider setting a personal rule to not talk on the phone while driving.

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Mistakes

With just a few more flight hours left before I can take my checkride, I can’t stop thinking about my future life as a pilot. I daydream about where I will go and what I will see. And I think about my cousins and future nieces or nephews, relatives, friends. I can’t wait to see their faces as the tires lift off the ground and we fly over their house or along the Hudson River Corridor next to Manhattan or on a trip down to Cape May or to see more distant relatives down the East coast. I can’t wait to be set loose as a pilot.

But at the same time, I’ll be set loose.  There is no doubt that I will have completed all of the requirements set forth by the FAA, and generally breezed through training, and I will be legally capable of flying a single-engine land-based aircraft almost anywhere my heart desires, almost anytime, with passengers. I think back to my cousins and future nieces or nephews, relatives, and friends sitting next to me or right behind me in a 172. And the sheer joy I can imagine on their faces, and on mine, is tempered a bit by the heavy weight of responsibility placed on the pilot’s shoulders. On my shoulders.

I want to be the best pilot I can be. Of course, this involves more training and a hell of a lot more practice, which I will dive into immediately. But meanwhile, I will be set free to the skies. Although I am glad to be near the end of the FAA-mandated 40 hours of training for the PPL, I don’t think those 40 hours equip me to handle all of the situations I might face. I find myself scouring NTSB reports and evaluating how I would handle the situations in the “Aftermath” and “I Learned about Flying from that” sections of Flying magazine. Richard Collins’ book The Next Hour, which I plan to discuss in a later post, was full of situations for me to imagine myself trying to confront. I often have two immediate reactions: first, that I would never allow myself to get in a similar situation. Second, that the people in the NTSB reports probably thought that they would never allow themselves to get in that situation.

We are humans, and therefore we make mistakes. I make mistakes occasionally in my job as a biologist. Sometimes the workload is large enough and the tasks difficult enough that an error or two will creep in which sabotage a part of or a whole experiment. I’m also a very active concert violinist, and I make mistakes in music too. Sometimes the stress of performing in front of an audience or the extreme precision and technique required for certain passages of music can cause a lapse in concentration, and the error rate will start to increase. In all cases, I hate making mistakes; I am a perfectionist and always very hard on myself when it happens. But the best scientists I know and the best musicians I know make mistakes sometimes. I have to assume that even the best pilots can make mistakes. We are human.

I am forever intrigued by the human brain and how it works. I found the following video very interesting describing how our brain handles information between two “systems”.

Of particular interest to aviation was the fact that we can become “effectively blind” when we fully engage our “System 2” brain. I can imagine so many possible times during flight that we might unknowingly become focused on one problem/task/goal that we suffer from this type of effective blindness. I remember early on in flight training I often felt that I was “behind” the airplane during simulated emergencies. Once during a simulated engine out my CFI changed the Comm 1 frequency to the wrong CTAF. I was amazed when after the few seconds it took me to change it back to make the position calls, I found I had lost situational awareness for long enough to fail to turn the base leg at the proper moment, and undershot the emergency approach.

It was a mistake, if it had been a real emergency I would have been in trouble. It was a difficult lesson. But thinking about it, a lot of the NTSB accident reports are probably the result of some seemingly innocuous decision or lapse in concentration or slight fixation on a problem. It happened to me on a clear (though hazy) day with no wind. Add in clouds and darkness and I can imagine the number of mistakes can start to increase rapidly if you’re not prepared to handle the situation. Although it is a scary thought, I think for me it is also the challenge of it all that drives me to be the best pilot I can be. To train and practice and study and plan (and follow checklists) to mitigate the risks of making the right mistakes at the wrong time.