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"People just have a limited ability to pay attention," said David Strayer, a professor of cognitive and neural science at the University of Utah. "It’s one of the characteristics of how we are wired."
"If we have two things demanding attention, one will take attention away from other," he said. "If it happens while sitting behind a desk, it’s not that big of a problem. But if you are sitting behind the wheel of a car or in the cockpit of an airplane, you start to get serious compromises in safety."
A text message — especially one accompanied by an audible alert like a buzz or bell — interrupts a person’s thoughts and can be hard to ignore, said Christopher Wickens, a University of Illinois professor emeritus of engineering and aviation psychology. If the subject of the email is especially engaging, or especially emotional, that also makes it hard to ignore, he said.
The helicopter pilot didn’t have a history of safety problems and was regarded as a good, safe pilot by his co-workers. He was a former Army pilot, and NTSB investigators said his actions on the day of the accident were apparently "out of character."
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