Industry Blog: Distraction Kills

Distractions are a serious public safety issue with deadly consequences. The number of injuries and deaths caused by individuals using attention-robbing electronic devices is alarming. A grave concern is that the use of personal electronic devices (PEDs) has become so prevalent in our society that it has outstripped our ability to safely coexist with this technology. These “smart” devices have made a subset of our population really “dumb,” and simply regulating the use of PEDs won’t fix the problem. It’s a behavioral issue that requires a deeper understanding of human limitations and the related vulnerabilities.

Here’s where we stand. Irresponsible individuals are hurting, maiming, and killing people daily. The stats are pretty scary—the National Safety Council (NSC) reports that cellphone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year. Nearly 390,000 injuries occur each year from accidents caused by texting while driving; on average, nine deaths occur each day. One out of every four car accidents in the U.S. is caused by texting and driving. Other studies suggest that texting and driving is three to four times more dangerous than operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Eliminating distractions is on the NTSB "Most Wanted" list. According to the NTSB, “In transportation, distraction kills. Drivers and operators in all modes of transportation must keep their hands, eyes, and minds focused on operating their vehicles. Ultimately, eliminating distractions in transportation will require changes in regulations, as well as in driver and operator thinking and behavior.”

Regulators at all levels, including the FAA, have enacted laws that make it illegal to operate vehicles while using a PED. In 2014, the FAA amended the “Sterile Cockpit” rule (FAR 121.542) to include a prohibition on the use of personal electronic devices on the flight deck. The rule prohibits airline flight crews from employing a “personal wireless communications device or laptop computer for personal use while at their duty station on the flight deck while the aircraft is being operated.” According to the FAA, the rule is “intended to ensure that certain non-essential activities do not contribute to the challenge of task management on the flight deck or a loss of situational awareness due to attention to a non-essential task.”

Recognizing that the perils of multitasking affect all flight crews, the NTSB recommends a similar regulation for Part 91K and 135 pilots. Focusing on the human- factors element, the NTSB stated, “The increased prevalence of PEDs has only expanded the potential ways a pilot can be distracted; however, the consequence remains the same: a loss of situational awareness with potentially catastrophic consequences. Because people have limited attention and many transportation tasks are multidimensional and complex, reducing the distractions that pilots and operators voluntarily bring into the task environment can maximize the attention resources.”

At the root of this discussion are the cognitive limitations of humans. According to a NASA study, “Pilots are highly vulnerable to errors of omission when they attempt to interweave two or more tasks.” Cognitive research indicates that people are able to perform two tasks concurrently only in limited circumstances, even if they are skillful in performing each task separately.

Humans have two cognitive systems; one involves conscious control, while the other is largely automatic. Conscious control is slow and requires effort performing one step at a time, in sequence. Automated cognitive processes develop as we acquire skill—these processes are specific to a task, operate rapidly and fluidly, and require little effort.

Texting is an example of a novel activity that requires conscious processing. Each written exchange is unique and each individual has to formulate an appropriate and different response. Driving a car on a familiar route is largely automatic. Mixing or combining conscious and automated processing tasks will challenge the driver’s cognitive capabilities. Like many other human-factors issues, the effects of cognitive limitations are often subtle and, when unchecked, contribute to errors. This, combined with extended periods of being “head down,” creates a deadly combination.

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To eliminate distractions, some forward-thinking companies clearly define when the use of a PED is prohibited. As an example, one Canadian helicopter company requires its maintenance technicians to place their cell phones in a secure box before working on the shop floor. Another prohibits the use of PEDs in company vehicles.

Individuals must also take some responsibility in eliminating the distractions from the use of PEDs. One concept is to establish a “gate” for entering the “no phone zone.” Personally, I turn off my phone when I pick up my flight release from dispatch. At that point, I become just a pilot. I am no longer available to be a dad, husband, homeowner, union rep, sports fan, shareholder or whatever—all of that can wait. If some flight-related issue arises, then I turn my phone back on to communicate with the company. What’s your plan? 

Better understanding the cognitive limitations and vulnerabilities of humans should go a long way towards eliminating distractions caused by PEDs. The challenge is to educate those who are unaware of the dangers, feel invincible, or just simply do not have a clue.

Pilot, safety expert, consultant, and aviation journalist Kipp Lau writes about flight safety and airmanship for BJT sister publication Avaition International News. He can be reached at