Attention & Concentration 

“Concentrate when driving” – Has anyone ever told you why?

There are two main factors relating to where our attention is drawn to related to both non-driving and driving situations:

1. Exogenous – Externally focused. For example, sudden movement which draws attention. In driving our attention is often focused towards things which suddenly happen, a car approaching a side road, the sound of a horn etc.

2. Endogenous – Internally focused but goal driven. For example, focusing on wanting to get across at a set of traffic lights before they turn red.

Everyday attentional allocation is a complex interplay between exogenous and endogenous factors.

Sensory conspicuity (exogenous focus) is a term used to describe how we notice things we are not necessarily looking for. For example, a fluorescent coloured jacket worn by a cyclist. On the other hand Cognitive conspicuity (endogenous focus) is a term used to describe how we notice things related to what we are looking for.

If we relate these two conspicuity factors to a driving situation, lets say waiting at a busy junction, let’s see how they can help us:

When at a busy junction headlights, colours, sounds will help increase sensory conspicuity which is great – it helps us notice a car for example. Cognitive conspicuity on the other hand would assist us in seeing what is there – speed of the car, gap in traffic etc. In this situation we can see how these attentional factors interplay in a driving situation.

However, how can things go wrong?

Only a small part of a drivers behaviour is influenced by all the detailed information they have seen, and by this we mean what has been presented on their eyes retinas and not what they have actually processed. The driving scenery needs to be interpreted correctly to ensure the driver remains safe and all data feeds correctly processed.

Lots of accidents involving a car pulling out in front of oncoming traffic at a T junction, is down to the driver seeing the oncoming car (as in the image of the oncoming car was cast onto the persons retina), but the cognitive process after that failed to incorporate this essential bit of information from the retina.

This error is down to the fact that our visual system is seriously flawed, as we can only provide a high resolution analysis of only a small part of the total driving environment, and priorities have to be set.

This is where attention comes into play, to basically ensure cognitive processes are fully optimised for the safest decision to me made. Now, if we are not concentrating for whatever reason, then this priority setting process cannot be fully utilised. Because of this, essential information feeds are not given the required priority in the cognitive process of making a decision to pull out or not.

Data Input > Priority Setting > Action
Poor Concentration = Poor Priority Setting

There are many reasons for not concentrating fully. We don’t always mean not concentrating because you are chatting to friends, or thinking about the meeting you are going to etc, but other less obvious things like expectations.

In driving, our minds often base decisions partly based on what we have experienced before. For example, an experienced driver may have approached a T junction many thousands of times before. These past experiences means your mind creates schemas (see Schema section) which is a pre-made plan of how to do a task. Schemas are great as they help us do things with more ease. However, they can also cause us not to concentrate fully, as our expectations of what we believe to be there, based on past experiences can interfere with what is really there.

It seems almost incomprehensible that we can actually see a car yet forget to act on such important information a split second later – but this is exactly what can and does happen! You just need to be aware that seeing a hazard is not good enough – you need to concentrate! Once you concentrate your brain can then efficiently prioritise and hopefully keep you safe!

How to stay safe:

1. Be aware of these flaws all humans have

2. Concentrate when driving – this is a bit of a road safety cliche, but if you have read and taken in the above information the saying should make so much more sense to you now.

Learn more about attention and observation when driving.