Driven to Distraction by Language While Driving


Home / Driven to Distraction by Language While Driving

Benjamin Bergen. Image courtesy of B. Bergen.

Language Interference and Driving

Using language while driving  may degrade driving skills, and there are different types of language that have greater interference levels on driving. Does abstract language interfere with driving more than language connected to actions – especially if those actions are being performed while driving? Decoded Science asked Professor Bergen what type of language interferes with spoken language and why. He responded, “In terms of the measures of distraction we have, pretty much any meaningful language is distracting. Beyond this, the most distracting type of language is language concerning visual things, followed by language about actions, then abstract language.  We think that the explanation for this might have to do with simulation.

Visually presented language interferes with tactical control of a vehicle more than abstract language, because it induces a ‘code conflict.’ Meaning that in understanding sentences about visible things, you engage your vision system, and that interferes with simultaneously perceiving the world around you. Now, there might be an exception when it comes to language that’s specifically about your driving task. When someone yells “Brake!”, that’s not going to interfere with your ability to brake.”

Decoded Science: So even though we are listening to something, the content of what we are listening to can force our minds to engage in other activities that can affect our driving ability?

Professor Bergen:  Yes, while spoken language is primarily oral–auditory, its content can vitally engage perceptual and motor systems also deployed for perceiving the environment while driving and responding appropriately.

Other Language Sources Affect Driving Ability

If spoken language can degrade driving performance what if the source of the language is not a person sitting in the car with you but a technological device? Also would the different skill strengths of drivers in visual or aural tasks have an affect too?

Decoded Science asked Professor Bergen about GPS devices with spoken instructions,  listening to the news, music or other recorded audio. He responded, “Many people report that they need to shut off the radio, put down the phone, and if possible, quiet passengers when trying to navigate. I don’t know of any results showing differences in this regard tied, for instance, to whether the driver is more verbal or visual. But people have different strengths in different types of multitasking, so it’s possible that there are differences. When it comes to spoken GPS directions, I haven’t looked at this closely, but I’ve actually never heard anyone say that they have trouble with them before!”

Texting and Reading Whilst Driving

Having regular conversations while driving can interfere with your ability to drive, but so can talking on the phone, texting, reading texts, and other distracted behaviors. Decoded Science asked Professor Bergen whether this phenomenon explains the problems of texting whilst driving. He responded, “Yes, talking on the phone while driving is distracting, but texting is a double-whammy. Not only are you cognitively distracted-you’re trying to comprehend what you’re reading and also planning what to write-but you’re also visually and manually distracted. Simply stated, you can’t successfully look down at your device and at the same time also see a truck merging into you. And if you text with two hands, or even one, that takes away the ability to control the vehicle that you would otherwise have.”

Decoded Science:  Does reading sign posts or  GPS digital maps affect driving skills?

Professor Bergen:  To the extent that people are attending closely to things inside or outside the vehicle other than related to the driving itself, they can be distracted. Obviously visually appealing things like flashing signs or anything that produces a strong emotional response will be distracting.

Decoded Science:  Should drivers avoid all kinds of written language interaction?

Professor Bergen:  Aside from road signs that are directly relevant to their primary task, which is the safe control of the vehicle, reading pretty much anything else is going to have a cost.

Decoded Science:  What are the best language conditions for driving?

Professor Bergen:  That’s a surprisingly hard question to answer. In general, if the driver is alert and safety-conscious, no language at all usually produces the best outcomes. But sometimes a safety-conscious passenger can lead to safer driving outcomes-in the limiting case, driver training schools have an instructor in the passenger seat for this very reason. But there are cases where some language might be better than none at all. Consider the situation where the primary danger to the driver is not of distraction but of falling asleep. I’ve been told that long-haul truckers will often get on their CB radios because conversation keeps them awake and alert. I don’t think this is recommended for dense urban driving, but it goes to show that language interacts with the rest of what we do in sometimes surprising ways.

Decoded Science:  What is important about the findings and how can they be applied?

Movement, sensory perception and memory. Image by Adrian McGarry.

Professor Bergen:  The findings bring to light that not only does language interfere with low-level components of driving, because of the mental processing involved in understanding meaningful utterances, but also language with different content interferes more or less with higher level perceptual reasoning and motor planning. The lesson to learn from the present work is that language with different content can be expected to have heterogeneous effects. This ought to be as much the case in the driver’s seat, in the airplane cockpit, on the bridge of a ship, or in an air traffic control tower as it is in the laboratory.

There are several important real-world applications in connection to the driving distraction research. As mentioned, we now know that talking on the phone interferes with driving, even when using a hands-free device and this is exacerbated when you’re talking about actions and about things you can see. In other words, what you’re talking about can make a difference for how affected your driving is. Understanding exactly how this interference can be lessened is one question that people are currently pursuing. Another application is in the development of software that can understand language like people do so people can interact with their devices by talking to them normally, but of course we’re still far from there probably because we’re not equipping the software with the things that humans use to make sense of language, namely abilities to simulate what described things would look and sound and feel like.

Driving and Conversation – Complex, Multi-modal, Attention-demanding Tasks

Years of research discovered and confirmed how older evolutionary areas of our brain dealing with actions and perception help us understand language through simulation. Newer research in relation to the way we simulate events has taken this one step further and investigated how due to cognitive overloads in certain parts of the brain some language components can literally drive us to distraction whilst driving and degrade performance.   As some people may not be aware, but as Bergen points out, “driving and conversation are both complex, multi-modal, attention-demanding tasks, so interference between them is not particularly surprising.”


Bergen, B. et al. The Crosstalk Hypothesis: Why Language Interferes With Driving. (2013). Journal of Experimental Psychology: American Psychological Association,  Vol. 142, No. 1, 119–130. Accessed May 24, 2013.

Bergen, B. You versus the man: Perspective in language-driven mental simulation. (2008). Accessed May 24, 2013.

Bergen, B. Louder than words: The new science of how the mind makes meaning. (2012). Basic Books.

Leave a Comment