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Can Distracted Driving Cause Blindness?

By Eugene Bruno on September 9, 2021

Ok, not real blindness. But it can cause something psychologists call intentional blindness, which is the failure to notice something because you weren’t expecting to see it and you were focusing on something else. It explains why you don’t notice what is right in front of you. Over the years, I have heard the same story from countless car accident defendants: they looked, but they did not see my client’s car. Many claim that my client’s vehicle “came from out of nowhere,” except it didn’t really, did it?

Imagine a teenager driving on a familiar roadway near his home. He’s doing everything right – he’s keeping an eye on the speedometer, the rearview mirror, and oncoming traffic. Suddenly, he notices a deer standing in the road. He slams on the brakes but can’t avoid striking the deer. Later, the teen insists to his parents that his eyes were on the road. He just never saw the deer. The teen’s parents are skeptical because, intuitively, most of us believe that, as long as our eyes are open, we will see what’s right in front of us. Or will we?

In 1999, Harvard University psychologists conducted an experiment by showing research participants a film of two basketball teams, one wearing black shirts and the other wearing white shirts. The researchers instructed participants to count how many times the white team passed the basketball passed themselves and to ignore the other team. While the teams play, a man in a gorilla suit walks through the video, stands in the middle of the basketball players, pounds his chest, and then walks away.

About half the research participants were so busy watching the ball, they didn’t notice the gorilla, even though he was clearly visible for several seconds. How can you not notice a gorilla at a basketball game?? Try it for yourself (but remember, I warned you about the gorilla so you should be watching for it):

It’s not that the eyes do not see, it’s that the brain doesn’t process what the eyes see. Mostly, it happens because the brain is pre-occupied. And the more the brain is pre-occupied, the greater the degree of inattentional blindness. What is pre-occupying the brain while driving? Driving already involves several processes, including watching the road, plus looking out for other vehicles, plus recognizing and obeying traffic controls. There’s a lot going on. Now add music, plus adjusting the air conditioning, plus talking with your passenger, plus checking a text message — anything else? The greater the number of distractions the brain is engaged with, the less attention the brain has to focus on unexpected objects and the greater the inattentional blindness.

That’s how defendant drivers look but don’t see what’s right in front of them. And that’s how people get hurt.

Video Source: http://www.dansimons.com/videos.html