I'm not cut out to be a truck driver, but I did enjoy the scenery.

I'm not cut out to be a truck driver, but I did enjoy the scenery.

Photo by Deborah Lockridge

Last week, I had to drive from my home in Alabama to my Dad's home in Illinois to be there for his coronary bypass surgery. It’s a nine-hour drive, plus stops. I normally fly, so it’s the first time I’ve made the drive by myself. And there were a few things I realized. OK, not actually brand new revelations, but bringing home some truths that were illustrated quite well by the trip.

1. I'm not cut out to be a long-haul truck driver.

Some people have a natural ability to handle long drives and even enjoy them. Take my sister, who has long had a habit of making long trips on the spur of the moment. There was the time she drove from Houston, Texas, to Wichita, Kansas, on a whim to surprise Dad at Christmas. And earlier this year she drove from her home in Illinois down to Alabama to help out with my daughter's prom when I was laid up recuperating from ankle surgery. And obviously the truck drivers who ply our nation's highways delivering the goods we need, safely and efficiently, have this ability as well.

Not me.

My back hurt. My sciatic nerve hurt. I got bored. I had to stop six times... at least. At the end of the day, I was stiff and sore and exhausted. The trip just gave me even more appreciation for the truck drivers who do this every single day.

Not that there weren’t benefits as well. Seeing the Illinois plains at sunset, with the wind turbines and barns and harvesting equipment silhouetted against the ruddy western sky – a very different landscape from my home of hills and trees and mountains in Alabama. And I got to listen to my favorite podcast – but that led to some other problems. (See number three.)

2. Over-reliance on technology can let you down.

This trip is not one I know by heart, so I was relying on the navigation feature of my iPhone. I was driving along I-24 heading home, and I was supposed to peel off onto I-57 south near Mount Vernon, Illinois. But the maps app, when I came to that junction, was still showing that I should stay on I-24 for the next 26 miles. So I did. I realized about 30 miles later that nothing looked familiar. And that the phone screen still said 26 miles. So I pulled off the highway, rebooted the iPhone, and discovered I was about an hour out of my way.

Remember Bugs Bunny said he should’ve took that left turn at Albuquerque? Well, I should’ve took that right turn at Mount Vernon. Boy, did I feel like a dummy. How many times have I lectured my daughter, who is learning to drive, about the importance of knowing how to read maps because you can’t always rely on those turn-by-turn directions? Well-publicized incidents have seen motorists driving off a pier or getting stuck on logging roads in the winter because they blindly followed their navigation devices, or truck drivers taking the roof off their trailers going under a too-low overpass, again because they relied on the technology and not their brains.

3. Cognitive distraction is real

What happened? How did I miss that turn-off, then I knew was coming? It was that podcast. I was binge-listening to Ars Paradoxica, which I recently discovered. It’s like an old-time radio serial about a time traveler. Well, I was so wrapped up in this fictional world, of time travelers and nefarious government agencies and time travel paradoxes, my brain too busy painting in the picture of these fictional characters, that it wasn’t fully focused on what my eyes were actually seeing.

And it's happened to me before. Years ago, when I was commuting an hour each way to my first trucking magazine job. I discovered I couldn’t listen to books on tape. The same thing happened. I was too wrapped up in the fictional world and didn’t pay enough attention to my driving. Music doesn’t do this, or short form radio, like interviews and news. It seems to be the fiction that affects me. And I shouldn’t be surprised. My family teases me for my ability to totally tune out the world around me when I’m reading a book.

Back when this happened the first time, I didn’t know the name for it: cognitive distraction.

We hear a lot about driver distraction, and often it revolves around our electronic devices, such as texting, talking on the phone, or reaching for things – stuff that physically distracts you from the road, that takes your hands off the wheel, or your eyes off the road. But there is another type of distraction that can happen with both hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road, and it’s called cognitive distraction.

Several years ago, at our Fleet Safety Conference, I heard a very compelling presentation about cognitive distraction. I learned that talking on the phone can cause cognitive distraction. Even hands-free.

Now I suspect that it probably depends partly on the nature of the call. That a short call to just let someone know your ETA, or maybe even a call in to trucking radio show, probably isn’t as cognitively distracting as, say, an emotional call dealing with your significant other or a long call with your kids.

And a phone or podcast doesn't even have to be involved. It can be your own brain. Back in the early '90s, when the World Wide Web was new, I was so lost in thought about all the things we could do with the website we were designing that I drove right past my exit on my way home from work. Research has shown that being lost in thought can be just as distracting as talking on the phone.

Regardless of the source of the cognitive distraction, it's something we all need to be aware of. I know I’ll be looking a lot closer at what I choose to listen to behind the wheel.

About the author
Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

Editor and Associate Publisher

Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology.

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