(KMSP) - Drivers can be blinded by distraction even when their eyes are on the road.
The Fox 9 Investigators saw how this happens after testing six drivers at the Dakota County Technical College and asking them to drive on the closed driving track while they talked on their phones, which is legal to do in Minnesota.
Professor Dan Simons is an awareness researcher from the University of Illinois.
"You can look right at something, stare directly at it and simply not see it because your mind is otherwise occupied," he said.
Researchers have a name for the strange trick our brains can play and it’s called “inattentional blindness."
In 2015, 74 deaths and 5,387 injuries were linked to inattentive driving in Minnesota.
Last year, state insurance premiums had their biggest increase in nearly a decade.
The average 2017 car insurance premium is now $772.
"You can't hold a good conversation when you're driving, and you can't drive effectively while you're holding a conversation. Those two things are mutually interfering with each other," said Simons.
DISTRACTED DRIVERS ON THE COURSE
The volunteer drivers were asked to drive the course and count the number of cones covered with white bags.
At the same time, they were talking with Aaron Machtemes by phone.
At the time, they didn’t know he is a police officer from Eagan and was watching them from a squad car on a hill overlooking the track.
We placed some eye-catching items right next to the cones, including a tire, a toy car, a school bus with its stop arm extended, a Santa Claus decoration and a second stroller.
Trying to count cones while talking to the officer was challenging for all the drivers.
"You're more likely to be using up those attention resources, which makes you less likely to notice something unexpected," said Simons.
At the end of each run, Machtemes pulled right behind the test car with his emergency lights on.
Four drivers saw the squad and pulled over.
But two were so engaged in conversation with him, they didn’t notice he was following them, so he was forced to put on his siren to get their visual attention.
THERE WAS A SCHOOL BUS ON THE TRACK
One of the drivers didn’t even remember passing by the school bus with its stop arm extended.
A second driver said he saw the bus, but not the stop arm or the flashing red lights.
Every one of the volunteers could not recall seeing some of the items that were right next to the cones they were counting.
The point is: a person’s attention has limits, especially while driving.
"What we don't realize is having that conversation is really cognitively demanding as is driving. And they interfere with each other. It's a lot like we know we can't whistle and chew gum at the same time," said Simons.
He added that using a hands-free device doesn't make a difference.
Just talking uses up attention resources, which means drivers are less likely to notice something unexpected.