It doesn’t take using a cell phone to cause driver distraction. Simply hearing a cell phone notification “ding” is enough to impair a person’s ability to focus on a given task — such as driving.
That’s according to a new study by Florida State University that found the distraction caused by a simple notification — an incoming phone call or text by a trendy ringtone, an alarm bell or a quiet vibration — is comparable to the effects seen when users actively use their cell phones to make calls or send text messages.
“The level of how much it affected the task at hand was really shocking,” said Courtney Yehnert, an FSU research coordinator who worked on the study.
The study, “The Attentional Cost of Receiving a Cell Notification,” was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. This is the first study to examine the effect of cell phone notifications on performance.
“Although these notifications are generally short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind-wandering, which has been shown to damage task performance,” the researchers said. “Cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupt performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants do not directly interact with a mobile device during the task.”
The Florida State study underscores that simply being aware of a missed call or text can have the same effect as using a mobile phone while driving.
The researchers’ findings are significant because many public information campaigns intended to deter problematic cell phone use — while driving, for example — often emphasize waiting to respond to messages and calls. However, even waiting may take a toll on attention, according to the researchers. Simply remembering to perform some action in the future is sufficient to disrupt performance on an unrelated concurrent task.
Although the FSU study did not involve driving, the results are relevant to the problem of distracted driving.
Overall, the study participants who received notifications made more mistakes on the computer task than those who didn’t. In fact, the increase in the probability of making a mistake was more than three times greater for those who received notifications. Those who received phone call notifications fared worse on the task than those who received a text alert.
“Even a slight distraction can have severe, potentially life-threatening effects if that distraction occurs at the wrong time,” the researchers said. “When driving, it’s impossible to know when ‘the wrong time’ will occur. Our results suggest that it is safest for people to mute or turn off their phones and put them out of sight while driving.”
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