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How long can a driver safely look away from the road?

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, which led the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety to release the results of a recent study testing how accurate the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's recommendations on driver attention might be. According to the Liberty Mutual, NHTSA recommends that drivers look away from the road for no more than two seconds at 70 mph. But is that really safe?

Consider this: At 70 mph, your car travels about 100 feet per second. So, during those two seconds you've glanced away, your car has gone about 200 feet - or two-thirds of the length of a football field. Can you afford to look away that long?

As amazing as it may seem, maybe not. The Research Institute tested the matter by having drivers perform tests on a driving simulator with eye-tracking equipment. Sometimes the simulator ran scenarios with hazards on the road; other times it ran scenarios with no hazards. In any case, the test group of drivers was subjected to a two-second visual interruption, while a control group was not.

"We were especially interested in situations where drivers observed an emerging hazard prior to the visual interruption and whether they would remember to look for that hazard after the visual interruption," explained one of the researchers.

Afterward, the drivers were asked to fill out a questionnaire about how they thought they did. On average, members of the test group rated their performance at about 70 out of 100 - pretty high.

They were wrong. According to the Research Institute, that two-second visual interruption negatively impacted the drivers' performance on the simulation. For example, when a vehicle pulled out quickly in front of the simulation drivers, those subjected to the two-second visual interruption were less able to react.

The fact that the distracted drivers still rated their performance as good was extremely interesting to the researchers because it showed they weren't aware of the problem. "The fact that drivers consistently missed critical information but were unaware of having missed it suggests that they would be likely to continue unsafe driving behaviors," they said.

Would you know if distraction caused you to miss an oncoming hazard?

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