Magic, Misdirection and Distracted Driving

by John McKiggan

My hobby is performing magic, and I love reading books about famous magicians. So I was interested to read Alex Stones’ new book about Houdini called Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks & the Hidden Powers of the Mind. It occurred to me some of what Stone says about magicians is relevant to my work as a personal injury lawyer in Nova Scotia.

Distracted Driving

In my work representing people who have been injured in car collisions I have noticed an increase in the number of accidents caused by driver inattention or some form of distracted driving.

That’s why I have been volunteering with a group called giving presentations to schools about the dangers of distracted driving. is trying to educate our teens and the public about distracted driving.

What Does This Have to Do With Magic?

What Stone says is that magicians misdirect their viewers’ attention even when their eyes are still focused on the act. One example he gives of this is when magicians question the audience during the act. The questions are disguised to sound like they are part of the usual showman-audience rapport when they are really serving to distract our minds. While our brains are distracted with thinking-about and answering the questions, even if our eyes are focused on the magician’s hands, we will usually not notice what the magicians hands are doing.

The scientific principle that we magicians try to take advantage of is a human characteristic psychologists call “inattentional blindness”.

The Basketball Test

One of the best examples of this is foiund in the work of Simons and Chabris. Watch this video and I challenge you to count the number of times the players wearing white pass the basketball.



Distracted While Paying Attention

This video is a perfect example how drivers can become distracted even when they think they are giving the road their full attention.

Fewer than 10% of people watching this video actually notice the “big surprise”.

Nowadays we have any number of distractions in our vehicles: cell phones (handsfree or not), satellite radio (with any number of music/comedy/news/sports stations), GPS navigation and DVD/entertainment devices. Even if our hands are glued to the wheel, and our eyes on the road, it is possible that our minds (our attention) is being directed elsewhere.

Just like the magician’s questions during a performance, a conversation on a hands-free cellphone may distract us so much that we fail to pay attention to the events on the road as we drive. The CAA website claims that talking on a cellphone increases the risk of an accident by four to five times.

Passengers Help

Some say a passenger is equally distracting, studies have shown that a second-set of eyes (and a second-mind) can compensate for the distractions they cause to the driver. While passengers are somewhat of a distraction, especially to young or inexperienced drivers, they are less of a danger than cellphone conversations.


Unfortunately we can’t waive a magic wand and stop people from being injured in car accidents. It will take public education, and discipline by drivers, to help reduce the needless injuries and deaths we see on Canada’s highways every year.

So the next time you are behind the wheel, try to avoid the rabbit in the hat and keep your attention on the road.

This article was previously published on The Atlantic Canada Legal Examiner.

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