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How Perceptual and Cognitive Factors
are Involved in a Car Accident:
A Case Study

By: Vanessa Dominguez & Marc Gentzler | Mentor: Dr. Andrew P. Daire


In the United States, car accident related deaths and injuries contribute thousands of dollars each year. Approximately half of all Americans have been affected by a serious motor vehicle accident, including 23% who were involved in a motor vehicle accident in which someone went to the hospital, 39% who had a friend or relative seriously injured or killed, and 49% who were involved in a serious accident where a friend or relative was seriously injured and/or killed (AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 2010). Seventy-four percent of Americans agree that they would benefit if the government were to give more attention to traffic safety issues (AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 2010). Research and development on road safety is essential for creating improved driver safety regulations. It is necessary for key organizations such as the government and legislative bodies, researchers, police, car-makers, media, etc. involved in policy development to research the causes and effects of car accidents to improve driver safety and reduce the number of car-related accidents; especially the different perceptual and cognitive factors that influence car accidents.

This particular accident was possibly due to several perceptual and cognitive factors involved independent of the influence of alcohol. It is not clear how much of a role any of these perceptual and cognitive factors discussed played in the accident, nevertheless it is clear that they all need to be considered as possible contributors to the accident. Human factors analysis of this crash could provide enough reasonable doubt about whether the driver of Vehicle A is guilty of vehicular manslaughter due to the potential contribution of these perceptual and cognitive factors. Just before the accident occurred, several events could have transpired, such as (a) the driver of Vehicle A may have lost sight of Vehicle B when its headlights were extinguished, and tried to avoid it by moving to the other side or by pulling off to the shoulder, (b) the driver of Vehicle A failed to see Vehicle B in the last few seconds, but thought maybe the road curved to his right earlier than he previously thought. Also, (c) the driver of Vehicle A possibly thought Vehicle C in the south lane was the car he saw the entire time, or (d) the driver of Vehicle A may have seen Vehicle B in the last few seconds with his headlights shining on it and tried to avoid it by moving to the other side.

For the purposes of this study, perceptual and cognitive factors were examined as possibly playing a role in a specific car accident. A limitation of this research is addressing these six factors for one particular car accident. Human factors driving performance research and car accident reconstruction involves several other factors not thoroughly discussed here. However, the assessment of these perceptual and cognitive factors involved in car accident analyses motivates the need for further research in these areas. Continuing the research performed in driving performance including these six factors can continue to unify the laws and regulations around the United States to improve driver safety and decrease the number of car accidents.

This case study has shown that learning more about driver's expectations can help develop better ways to improve driving, such as road sign development and traffic communication. Research on glare can improve headlight development and implementation of ideal roadside lighting on rural roads. Further knowledge on general visibility and dark adaptation can help develop stricter regulations for eye-sight requirements and safety procedures for nighttime driving. Research on road illusions will improve the design of roads and highways to reduce traffic flow, decrease speeding, and increase awareness of the driver's perspective. Understanding P-R time will improve braking mechanisms in vehicles and front and side airbag deployment. This accident also shows the importance of road maintenance, keeping the road markings as clear and reflective as possible, replacing or reinforcing them on a regular basis.

Through continuing research, car accidents and the death rates that result from can be preventable. Reviewing different perceptual and cognitive factors such as the six previously described creates alternative ways for a car accident to be caused other than what may be obvious. More research needs to be focused on the compounding effects of other perceptual and cognitive factors on driving performance to better analyze accidents and develop improved ways to prevent them. No matter what discipline a person may be in, car accident analysis and the factors contributing to car accidents are generalizable to the public. Almost everyone knows someone who was involved in a car accident.

Acknowledgements >>